21 Years in the Making, Brahms’ First on Symphony @ 7
So aware was Johannes Brahms of Beethoven’s spirit looking over his shoulder, it took him a very long time to get around to completing a first symphony. In fact he was 43 when Symphony No. 1 in C minor premiered in 1876. Three other major works for orchestra had already appeared before the First Symphony: Serenades 1 and 2 (1857 and 1859) and the First Piano Concerto (1858).
The first sketches for the symphony go back to 1854. Brahms was a very self-critical composer and destroyed many of his early works, and the pressure he felt from others who considered him to be a natural heir of Beethoven weighed heavily upon him. When the First Symphony did appear and was successful, he must have felt great relief, for a second symphony was completed just a year later and subsequently two more, all within a span of about 10 years.
But that first one was a bear to complete. And no wonder, it is one of the great symphonies of the late 1800s. It was sometimes called “Beethoven’s Tenth” by others and one can’t help but notice echoes of Beethoven at times, especially in the introduction to the last movement which seems to quote Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. When Brahms was asked about it, he replied, “any ass can see that.” So, the homage to Beethoven was intentional, and it was appropriate.
Bigger symphonies were still to come in the remaining years of the 19th century: Anton Bruckner openly acknowledged his debt to Beethoven and had already written several large symphonies, with even grander ones to come before his death in 1896. And then there was Gustav Mahler waiting in the wings to come up with even more ambitious and huge symphonies bridging the 19th and 20th centuries and leaving an unfinished Tenth Symphony at his passing in 1911.
But it is Johannes Brahms who seems best to sum up the Romantic tradition of symphonic form as it evolved from the classicism of Haydn and Mozart to the first really “Romantic” symphonies of Beethoven, Schubert, and Schumann.
Join me Tuesday evening for the first of the four great symphonies of Johannes Brahms here on Classical 101. Listen for the Beethoven quote about five minutes and 20 seconds into the final movement.