This Month Yannick Talks about Brahms’s Symphony No. 1.
My connection with Brahms’s First Symphony dates back to my discovery of orchestral music when I was very young. Being such a fan of Brahms’s music and of the conductor Carlo Maria Giulini, I found the Symphony to be an amazing, monumental work. The first movement especially impressed me with its extraordinary opening and its relentless notes of the basses and the timpani, but also the sadness at the end of the introduction, the middle movements full of such tenderness, and the finale with its exuberant joy. Now that I’ve been conducting this symphony a lot, I have readjusted my view of it. I don’t love it less—I maybe love it even more because I now see it more through the lens of Beethoven.
It’s well documented how Brahms was intimidated by the idea of writing of a symphony after Beethoven. And that’s why he chose the key of C minor, which is the same key as Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The rhythm of the eighth notes at the beginning, repeated six times, and the main allegro theme, which has a motif that is very similar to the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, make me feel that there’s more urgency in this piece now than when I used to conduct it. It makes sense to me that Brahms was inspired by Beethoven—one genius taking the material of the other genius before him and putting his personal touch on it. Another Beethoven connection is the beginning of the main allegro of the last movement. This melody, which is so beautiful, is very similar to the “Ode to Joy” in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, but I consider it an ode to peace. It makes the same case for Brahms taking what Beethoven left us and bringing it to new heights.
Brahms’s First Symphony will be performed live in Verizon Hall December 9, 10, & 12, 2021, and March 12, 2022.
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Photo: Jessica Griffin