Symphony No. 1 : Work information

Johannes Brahms ( Music, Images,)
Performed by
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, James Judd (Conductor)

This work

Work name
Symphony No. 1
Work number
Op. 68
C minor
1876-00-00 02:00:00

This recording

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Recording date

Track listing

  • Un poco sostenuto - Allegro 17:55 min
  • Andante sostenuto 9:21 min
  • Un poco allegretto e grazioso 5:23 min
  • Adagio - Più andante - Allegro non troppo 18:36 min


Although Brahms began composing the First Symphony as far back as 1855, the work was not finished until 1876. One of the great nineteenth century symphonies, considered at the time a worthy successor to Beethoven's examples, Brahms' First Symphony shuns the romantic pictorial writing of its contemporaries. Instead, it breathes new life into traditional forms and orchestration.

The first movement was all but complete by 1862 but laid aside until 1874 when the slow introduction was added. This weighty opening movement is magnificent in its intensity and technical mastery of the orchestra.

Work started again in the summer of 1874, though the horn call of the last movement is referred to in a letter to Clara Schumann dated 12 September 1868. The work was finally completed in September 1876, though Brahms made cuts to the sublime middle movements before its first performance on 4 November.

The majestic finale that crowns the work has a theme as memorable as that in the finale of Beethoven's Ninth, prompting some to label the Symphony 'Beethoven's Tenth', much to the annoyance of Brahms. The horn call, heard near the opening of the finale and dedicated to Clara Schumann, makes a triumphant appearance at the climax of the movement before the orchestra make a thrilling dash for the close.

The Composers

Johannes Brahms

Generally considered to be one of the greatest German composers, Johannes Brahms combined three centuries of tradition with the folk and dance influences of the mid-nineteenth century to create a unique and influential style. Although stereotyped as a traditionalist, many modernists, Schoenberg in particular, acknowledged his music as progressive and pioneering.

Born in Hamburg on 7 May 1833 to a working-class family, Brahms was well educated and showed a voracious appetite for learning. He studied the piano, cello and horn and gained an early love for Bach, the Viennese classicists, German romantic poets, and folklore. In order to supplement the family's income, he played popular music and taught piano.

A shy and reserved youth, he is thought to have started composing in the mid 1840s, though a lifelong attitude of self-criticism ensured that only his most polished mature works were spared destruction. His lifelong interest in the Hungarian gypsy style also formed at this time as political refugees passed through Hamburg on their way to exile in the US.

The turning point in his life occurred in 1853 when he met Joseph Joachim who introduced him in turn to Robert Schumann, a loyal advocate of Brahms' music in his remaining years. When Schumann died in 1856, Brahms developed passionate romantic feelings towards Schumann's wife, Clara. Clara's feelings, however, were never more than those of friendship or motherly love, but the two remained lifelong friends and a great many works were dedicated to her.

As a result of this disappointment, Brahms felt that he must give up all thoughts of intimate personal relationships and devote himself to music. He became infatuated with many women over the years but always maintained his personal freedom and never seriously considered marriage.

A time for introspection and study, the late 1850s saw Brahms occupied with several choral society positions. He was also identified at this time with the opposition to the literary-oriented music of Liszt and his supporters which, along with the fiasco that accompanied the premiere of his D minor Piano Concerto, almost threatened his career.

The early 1860s saw Brahms undertake trips to Vienna and accept the directorship of the Vienna Singakademie. However, financial problems forced him to undertake lengthy concert tours and it was not until his German Requiem was garlanded with critical acclaim that he became established as a leading composer.

During the 1870s, Brahms's fame spread far and wide throughout Europe and the US; he undertook a number of concert tours and, in 1872, accepted a postion as director of the concerts of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna. He amassed a substantial fortune but lived frugally in Vienna, though he was unfailingly generous to others, especially children.

Success with the string quartet and symphony finally came in the 1870s and 1880s when the great orchestral and chamber works were written, including his four symphonies. He also collected European folk music and continued a lifelong interest in early music, overseeing collected editions of Couperin and CPE Bach.

During the 1890s many of Brahms's great circle of friends died, including Clara Schumann in 1896. Reflecting on his life, his compositional output began to decline, though clarinettist Richard Mühlfeld inspired some late chamber works for clarinet.

Lauded throughout Europe and showered with awards and honorary degrees, Brahms developed cancer of the liver and died on 3 April 1897. He was buried in Vienna near to Schubert and Beethoven.

Brahms's legacy stretched all over Europe, from France (Fauré) to England (Elgar). As an orchestral composer he can be said to be the successor of Beethoven; as a miniaturist, the inheritor of Schumann and Schubert's genius; and in the field of choral music, the true heir to the renaissance and baroque polyphonists. His music's great popular appeal continues to this day.

Related Composers: Schumann, Dvorak, BeethovenElgarFauré