Inside the Music | Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 | Late Romantic | Classical
Although the composer Robert Schumann had prophesied in 1853 that Brahms would be pre-eminent in symphonic forms, he was diffident about coming before the public with a symphony. Many felt that Beethoven had already said all that there remained to say in this, the grandest of orchestral genres. So the eventual appearance of Brahms’ First Symphony in 1876 was a major event. In many respects an ‘answer to Beethoven’, it is an intensely dramatic work in C minor, the key of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The great singing tune of the finale, and the trombones’ suggestion of a chorale, clearly refer to the vocal music in the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth (the ‘Choral Symphony’), but Brahms here recreates vocal music in purely orchestral guise and blends it with Romantic imagery taken from nature (the finale’s horn call imitates an Alpine shepherd’s horn).
The symphony therefore reinterprets Beethovenian ideas from a later (romantic) perspective, and it was hailed by some critics as ‘the Tenth Symphony’, following on from Beethoven’s Ninth. In fact, this direct confrontation with Beethoven enabled Brahms to concentrate on a more personal kind of symphonism in his three later symphonies, more lyrical and elegiac and (in the case of No. 4) reviving structural principles derived from J. S. Bach.
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