Johannes Brahms


Symphony no. 1 (Finale) (1876)

In 1872 Johannes Brahms made one of his most famous statements, declaring to to the conductor Hermann Levi, “I shall never write a symphony! You can’t have any idea what it is like to hear such a giant marching behind you.” The giant? Beethoven, of course. The works of Beethoven, and especially his symphonies, set an incredibly high standard for Brahms as well as many other composers. The first movement of his Symphony No. 1 was drafted in 1862, although sketches for it date from 1854. The symphony was completed in 1876, Brahms having taken 22 years to finish it to his satisfaction. “My symphony is long and not particularly lovable,” wrote Brahms to his fellow composer Carl Reinecke when this piece was unveiled. The famous conductor Hans von Bülow was moved in 1877 to call the symphony “Beethoven’s Tenth” due to perceived similarities the main theme of the finale of Brahms’s First Symphony and the main theme of the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Brahms also makes use of the “fate” motto from the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. When Brahms was called out on this, his reply was typically Brahmsian: “Any ass can see that”.

I have often felt that there is a close connection between Brahms’s Symphony No. 1 and Wagner’s Die Meistersinger, both of which were completed within a 9-year time span relative to each other. Brahms admired the work of Wagner but had no use for the man. “I am the best Wagnerite”—J. Brahms. Compare and contrast the endings of these two excerpts:)