Program Notes

By Jason Sundram

Symphony #1 in C minor, Opus 68 (1876)

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Johannes Brahms (May 7, 1833–April 3, 1897)

  1. Un poco sostenuto: Allegro
  2. Andante sostenuto
  3. Un poco allegretto e grazioso
  4. Adagio; Piu andante; Allegro non troppo, ma con brio; Piu Allegro

Beethoven had composed eight of his nine symphonies by age 43. Brahms, considered by many to be his musical heir, had barely completed his first at that age. As a composer in the classical tradition, he was expected to write a symphony. Mozart had finished his first at the age of ten! Why then, did it take Brahms so long?

When Schumann first realized Brahmsís genius at the age of 20, he encouraged the young composer to make a name for himself with a symphony. But Brahms had a well-developed sense of history. He was very conscious that his music would outlast him and sought to only let his best work survive. To this end, he burned many manuscripts shortly before his death. Highly critical of his work, he worked very hard revising and perfecting his compositions. He tried not to force the development of his work; he always waited for new ideas. Since his reputation had been established as a master of classical style and form, he wanted a strong symphonic showing. “Composing a symphony is no laughing matter” he summarized. He was also strongly affected by Beethovenís shadow. Although he originally intended to write a D-minor symphony (the same key as Beethovenís ninth), he ended up writing a C minor (same as Beethovenís fifth). He had an early version for a first movement by 1862; this early version became parts of the German Requiem and Piano Concerto #1; it didnít survive as Brahms Symphony #1.

Brahmsí Symphony #1 in C minor was premiered in 1876. The symphony was praised for its “Homeric simplicity.” Indeed, in the symphony, Brahms seeks universality rather than subjectivity. It is often said of this symphony that “it is Beethovenís 10th symphony.” With it, Brahms finally continued the symphonic legacy of Beethoven.