James Nightingale considers Brahms’ First

The Symphony no 1 of Johannes Brahms is one of the most performed and admired works of orchestral music. My first encounter with it came as a beginner saxophonist, when learning to play the theme from the fourth movement – one of the most difficult exercises in A Tune a Day, an outdated but once ubiquitous book in music teaching studios. Like a lot of Brahms’ music, this theme is deceptive in its difficulty – played by an expert, it sounds simple but to attempt it is to test yourself against the complexity of a masterpiece.

It wasn’t until I was a bit older that I finally listened to the whole symphony – my amazement at the drama of the sound of the opening is still with me today. The relentless strokes of the timpani urging on anxious chords of pent-up energy bring to mind Brahms’ famous quote: “You can’t have any idea what it’s like to hear such a giant marching behind you.” Can we hear in these timpani strokes the steps of Beethoven pushing on the self-critical Brahms? Do the minor and dissonant chords portray his fear that he will be found wanting in comparison to the acknowledged epitome of German musical art? Perhaps that goes too far. Indeed, I think there may be a more positive way to engage with this masterpiece.

Brahms struggled with the conception of this first symphony, destroying several attempts, and then took some 14 years to perfect the complete draft. This is not to say that he was stuck in a rut during these years – nothing could be further from the truth. Brahms was busy and prolific, writing keyboard and chamber works as well as his two orchestral Serenades, works that any other composer might be proud to call symphonies. The symphony that did follow builds upon these earlier works, works in which Brahms carved the space in which to succeed on his own terms.

The success of Brahms’ Symphony no 1 is maybe due to his desire to balance tradition with creativity, to be situated within his culture and society as well as to innovate and lead. Though the symphony appears outwardly conventional in form, with four contrasting movements for an orchestra similar to that employed by Beethoven, it was far from conventional by the standards of Brahms’ day. One point of difference is the choice of keys for the inner movements. In the Classical period, the keys of the inner movements would always be closely related to the tonic, but Brahms chooses E major and A flat major in between the C minor of the first and fourth movements. This key relationship is based on major thirds, dividing the octave into three equal parts, a practice that would be more common to composers of the later 19th century. Yet, thanks to Brahms’ skill as a composer, the listener would hardly notice that the inner movements are unorthodox by the standards of the time.

In achieving this balance, Brahms triumphed over the critic in his own mind and shares with us a message of hope and humility that remains relevant today. As Brahms’ Symphony no 1 blazes to its finale, we hear that with work, thought and care, we too can overcome our fears and find acceptance for who we are.