In the 1870s Johannes Brahms was already an experienced and well-known composer. Having passed the age of 40, he was expected to write a symphony not only by his friends, but even by his detractors. Brahms, however, procrastinated. He admits that he finds it difficult to decide, as he worships his idol – Beethoven – and constantly hears “the giant’s footsteps” behind him. And work on his first symphony has dragged on for an unusually long time – in fact, he has been working on it longer than on all his other three combined. In the composer’s own words, the symphony, from first sketches to final touches, took a full 21 years to complete, from 1855 to 1876.
As early as 1853, Robert Schumann, referring to Brahms’s keyboard works, wrote that ‘a large-scale symphonic work is to be expected from this composer’. Brahms made his first attempts at the symphonic genre in 1854-1855, but these were eventually used in his First Piano Concerto. The next step towards the symphony was his Serenade No. 1 for orchestra, composed in 1858. The draft of the first movement for the future Symphony in D minor was created by Brahms in 1862 and the composer showed it to his friend Joseph Joachim. However, further work on the work was delayed for more than a decade. In 1868, during his stay in Switzerland, Brahms sent his long-time friend Clara Schumann a postcard with an Alpine message: ‘From the high mountains, from the deep valleys, I greet you a thousandfold’. On the card he sketched the melody that subsequently appeared in the symphony’s finale. Serious work on the work did not begin until 1874, and the ‘percussion movement’ was two years later, in the summer of 1876, which the composer spent on the island of Rügen, in the spa town of Sassnitz. On 25 September that year Clara heard the first movement and finale, and two weeks later – the entire symphony.
Fearing failure, the composer prepared especially thoroughly for the performance of his first major symphonic work. He was so concerned about the fate of his Symphony No 1 that he even refused to accept the post of music director offered to him in Düsseldorf, as he wanted ‘the premiere to take place in a small town, performed by a good friend, a wonderful Kapellmeister and a good orchestra’. “The ‘small town’ turned out to be Karlsruhe, where the composer’s friend Otto Dessoff worked. Under his baton, the symphony was first heard on 4 November 1876, and then – already under the baton of the composer himself – was also performed in Leipzig and Hanover. A year after the premiere, the score was published by the famous Berlin publisher Zimrock, who became a close friend of Brahms. Brahms’s First Symphony embodies the characteristic features of the composer’s style. It is made as a kind of summary of the centuries-long development of the symphonic genre and combines various traditions. There are many common features between this symphony and Beethoven’s heroic symphonies: from the sombre tonality to minor, which in the finale is transformed into an exultant major (as in Beethoven’s Fifth), to the main theme of the finale, which sounds like a version of the famous Ode to Joy. It is no coincidence that the celebrated conductor Hans von Bülow called this symphony Beethoven’s Tenth. On the other hand, there are not a few romantic features here that make Brahms a descendant of the symphonies of Schubert, Schumann and Mendelssohn. Sombre, dramatically agitated and propulsive images alternate with simple-spirited, pipsqueak Viennese moments – song and dance, lyrical and graceful. A quarter of a century after Schumann’s last symphony (1851), the four-movement non-programmatic symphonic cycle was revived again – Brahms consciously contrasted his First Symphony with the programmatic symphonism of Liszt and his Dante and Faust symphonies. There is also a marked desire both to enrich the range of stylistic relationships and to move beyond the confines of the 19th century (which culminates in the composer’s Symphony No. 4) and Brahms’s noticeable interest in early music, above all in the work of Bach.