1876: Brahms: Symphony No. 1 in C minor

SATURDAY, September 19, 2020 – 1:45 AM

1876: Brahms: Symphony No. 1 in C minor, age 43

  • I. Un poco sostenuto — Allegro: The first movement is in sonata form with an extended introduction. It starts in C minor but ends in C major, and doing this is called “ending on the Picardy 3rd.” It prepares him to morph to the 2nd movement, from C major to E major. E does not move, G goes to G# and C goes down to B. One thing to notice in Brahms: his orchestration often has an organ-like sound, which comes from his string writing. This is obvious from the very beginning.
  • II. Andante sostenuto: Here is the C major to E major morph. Is this important? Yes, and very important, but you don’t have to know what this means to sense that you move. You end in one key, then move to another, and you stay there for the whole movement. The form, much less important to me, is basically A B A.
  • III. Un poco allegretto e grazioso: This is a break from the pattern of Beethoven. Instead of minuet or scherzo, this is like a waltz. It isn’t, because it’s not in three, not at all, and in addition Brahms loved to play around with rhythm so that something written in very even time will sound as if some measures move from 4 to 5 to 3, or just about anything. This movement is in Ab major. So he started in C minor and ended in C major. Then he morphed to E major. In this movement he moved to Ab major. These three keys, C major, E major and Ab major are all linked together with double morphs. It’s incredibly sneaky and effective. There are different ideas, and they sort of alternate and create interest and tension, and in the middle the meter changes to 3/4.
  • IV. Adagio — Più andante — Allegro non troppo, ma con brio: In the last movement he ended in Ab major. How do you get from there to C minor? Make the Ab in the Ab chord come down to G. It’s a simple morph, smooth as butter. Then go to C major. The whole process is complete: C minor to C major, E major, Ab major, C minor, C major. He went nowhere, really, but the journey was very interesting. There is a whole bunch you can say about form, and instrumentation, and everything else, but the best is just to listen to one of the finest final movements every written.


It is interesting to note how conservative Brahms was. He wrote this many decades after the death of Mozart, but his instrumentation is really not much different, with only timpani. Beethoven already used trombones, so nothing new there. No tuba, no English horn.

  • 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 1 contrabassoon
  • 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones (4th movement only)
  • timpani
  • strings


There are so many bios about Brahms that it is probably pointless for me to write anything about him. One of the projects I would like to work on, in the future, is a series of bios on famous composers. but it would have to be something unusual enabling me to present things of interest that most people don’t know. And frankly, I don’t know if I’m good enough to do that. So for now I’ll stick to the standard Wiki summations, which are not a bad place to start – although they are rather boring.

It took him forever to write this…

We don’t even have a really accurate date of composition because no one agrees upon an exact completion date.

When you read about Beethoven, you find out he often had several things going at the same time. He was juggling compositions like plates, and some of his premieres were rather mangled with insufficient preparation. But Brahms? He sweated, worried, procrastinated, postponed, dallied and stalled, and he destroyed things if they did not meet his high standard. He was afraid of being compared to Beethoven, so he spent more than 20 years trying to finish his first symphony in a form he could present. There is a lot more to this story, but that’s the gist of it.


The conductor Hans von Bülow was moved in 1877 to call the symphony “Beethoven’s Tenth”, due to perceived similarities between the work and various compositions of Beethoven. Again, there is a lot more to this story, but the upshot is that his 1st symphony was a huge success and has been popular every since. Does it sound much like Beethoven? Absolutely not, so this “Beethoven’s 10th” point is typical hype, and utter nonsense. If anything, it gets in the way of appreciating a new masterwork.

In fact, Brahms was rather conservative creatively, and one of the knocks against him was that he lived in the past, idealizing a kind of music that was disappearing. In fact, I think it is not at all far-fetched to compare him to Rachmaninov, another man who looked backward and who was hammered for not being progressive enough. Today, however, both Brahms and Rachmaninov are beloved for similar reasons. They have both stood the test of time, and the masses have declared both of them to be traditional superstars. The masses get just about everything current wrong, but they are incredibly right most of the time about what is best from the past. You just have to be patient and wait for them to sort it all out.

Cristoph Eschenbach, Houston Symphony

Here is yet another case where I missed everything. I had never heard of this man, and when I heard this recording I was floored. It is magnificent, for too many reasons to go into. But when I read about his life, my jaw dropped.

He was born in Nazi Germany in 1940. His mother died in childbirth. His father was killed by the Nazis for speaking out against them. He ended up in a refuge camp, and he only started to speak when his aunt, Wallydore Eschenbach, started teaching him piano.

“Because I was so full of bad and terrible impressions, I was silent for a year,” he says. “I couldn’t speak anymore. I was closed.”

The relative who had found him in the refugee camp,  was a piano teacher. At night, she’d play Beethoven and Schumann and Chopin as little Christoph was drifting off to sleep. One day, she asked him if he’d like to learn the piano. He spoke his first word: yes. And, by the way, the Houston Symphony is amazing in this recording.


2 thoughts on “1876: Brahms: Symphony No. 1 in C minor

  1. I have to wonder if the sense of strength in this recording comes from Esenbach’s life circumstances. I don’t think I have 1/100th of the strength he does.

    Regardless of who’s conducting, I nearly always draw strength from Brahms.

    From Beethoven i get Hope

    From Wolfie I get Laughter

    From Bach I get.. the universe.

    This is a wondrous performance and a sparkling recording, it truly is.

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