Portrait of Johannes Brahms (1833 - 1897)
Portrait of Johannes Brahms (1833 - 1897)

Everything you need to know about Brahms's symphonies

Through each of his four symphonies, Johannes Brahms continued the path set by Beethoven, gradually paving the way for the music of Dvorák. However, in contrary to Beethoven and Dvorák, Brahms was already no longer a spry young man when he began his symphonic adventure…

When listening to Brahms's symphonies, one may well have the impression of hearing a huge orchestra. However, when examining the score, it is surprising to note that the true size of the orchestra is far smaller than imagined!

"Brahms went against all the traditions of his time, explains musicologist André Lischke. He rejected the spectacular and musical bloatedness found in Wagner and Bruckner. Similarly, he refused to follow in the footsteps of illustrative music, whether in opera or the symphonic poem." He sought to develop rather a "pure" music, one that was self-sufficient. 

Portrait de Johannes Brahms vers 1870
Portrait de Johannes Brahms vers 1870 © Getty  /  Mondadori Portfolio

The first symphony, twenty years in the making

Every composer has hidden away in his archives a symphony composed during the early stages of their career, perhaps of no musical interest whatsoever or, inversely, potentially promising in its ideas. Whatever the case, these sketches are rarely ever completed. For Johannes Brahms, this was not the case: when his Symphony no.1 was premiered on 4 November 1876, the composer was...44 years old!

The work took almost twenty years to complete. Brahms composed the first notes in 1854, following his encounter with Robert and Clara Schumann. However, both fascinated and terrified by the symphonic genre, he quickly put the work to one side. 

"Brahms was not a symphonist by nature", notes André Lischke. He came after Beethoven and Schumann, and was therefore naturally rather apprehensive." To reassure himself, he systematically performed each of his symphonies on the piano as a preview to his closest friends.

In 1873, the success of his Variations on a theme by Haydn for orchestra brought the composer a new burst of encouragement. Brahms dug out his old sketches and timidly continued what he had started years before. "Schumann wished the work had been composed by Brahms at the age of twenty, all his friends had awaited [this work] for decades, [...] we always hoped to see it finished for the following season", wrote Brahms's biographer Claude Rostand.

Critics have often likened Brahms's first symphony to those of Beethoven; some have even nicknamed it the "10th symphony"!

All sights set on Vienna with the Symphony no.2

For the Symphony no.2, there was no time to lose! Well-prepared this time around, Brahms wasted no time and finished the work in the wake of his first symphony. He spent the summer of 1877 composing and living comfortably in the Austrian town of Pörtschach, beside the lake Wörthersee.  

The work was first performed only a few months later, on 30 December 1877 in Vienna. Though audiences were far from receptive to his first Symphony in c minor, they were positively swept away with enthousiasm by the second Symphony in D major. Far from the wailing and austere tones of the first symphony, the second introduced a more pastoral, fresh, rural, and enchanting character.

Brahms himself considered the work to be joyful and full of levity: "A small gay symphony, completely innocent", he wrote to Adolf Schübring. The softness of the Adagio seduced even the coldest of hearts, and the playful and popular Allegretto Grazioso evokes a peaceful pastoral atmosphere...

The third symphony, "unfortunately too famous"

Sole production of 1883, Claude Rostand explains the work was awaited with such eagerness that the musical institutions fought frantically for the opportunity to host its first performance. Unsurprisingly, the work was performed in the grand Vienna Philharmonic concert hall on 2 December 1883, to rapturous applause.  The triumph of the Symphony in F major spread throughout Europe, even crossing the Atlantic to make its way through America. 

Characterised as "heroic" by Hans Richter, the work's confident, lively and joyous tone drew obvious comparisons to Beethoven's own Symphony no.3, known as the "Eroica". 

The wave of praise from the critics was so excessive that Brahms quickly grew irritated by the work's success! Unfortunate when one remembers the doubts and apprehensions that would overcome Brahms when presenting a new symphony. Sadly, the work was "too famous", claimed the composer upon noticing that his latest symphony overshadowed his previous works. Ironically, it is today the least-performed his of four symphonies...

Bach's presence felt throughout the fourth 

During the summer of 1885, Brahms stayed in Austria, in the town of Mürzzuschlag. There he spent many pleasant moments with his friends, the Fellingers, his time spent composing, playing games, and going on solitary walks in the countryside.

According to Claude Rostand however, upon returning from a long walk, Brahms discovered his house on fire. Had it not been for Mme Fellinger, the very popular Symphony no.4 would have gone up in smoke and never been heard!

Brahms en compagnie de Maria Fellinger
Brahms en compagnie de Maria Fellinger  © Getty  /  ullstein bild Dtl.

Elegiac in character, the work marks a return to the more traditional classical forms. The final movement in particular, inspired by the works of Bach, takes the form of a chaconne, a popular 17th and 18th century dance based on a series of theme and variations (no less than 35 in this case!)

For the first time, Brahms himself was at the helm of the orchestra for the symphony's first performance, late October 1885 in Meiningen. The work's most successful performance was in Leipzig, where the composer was called back countless times, with fervent applause... "It was madness", recalls Claude Rostand.

by Nathalie Moller

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