The symphonic legacy of Beethoven cast a shadow over the entire 19th century, but none felt the obligation and challenge imposed by it as keenly as Johannes Brahms. It was partly out of fearful reverence for his great predecessor and partly out of self-criticism that Brahms kept a respectful distance to the genre for a long time. He abandoned his first attempt in the genre in the mid-1850s He ventured into symphony territory for a second time apparently in the early 1860s. He then left the material for many years, returning to it in the 1870s and finally completing his First Symphony in 1876.
The first movement opens with an introduction that seems carved in granite, establishing an atmosphere of tragedy and defiance. Although the introduction was actually written later than the bulk of the first movement, it has close motif links to the fast section. The dramatic, severe first movement is propelled by tight, almost clenched rhythms incorporating Beethoven’s famous ‘Fate’ motif (three short notes and one long one).
The middle movements are more restrained and lighter in tone than the flanking movements. The tranquil, balanced and melodic slow movement is in the very distant key of E major (as indeed in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 3 in C minor). The third movement is not a scherzo as with Beethoven but a calmer, intermezzo-style Allegretto e grazioso.
After these two quieter movements, the symphonic drama returns with a vengeance in the slow introduction to the finale. The fast section begins with a hymn motif that is a thinly veiled reference to the theme of the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the ‘Ode to Joy’. The finale is a dramatic but ultimately victorious struggle, featuring the return of the motifs and horn theme from the introduction. In the coda, Brahms steps up the tempo as if to underline the moment of triumph. Perhaps these measures reflect some of the personal triumph that Brahms must have felt after completing the work, which due to its lengthy gestation process must have been quite a burden to shoulder.
Shortened from Kimmo Korhonen's work presentation
Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi