"Composing a symphony is no laughing matter." ~ working in the shadow of Beethoven, Brahms took the writing of his first symphony very seriously.
Performed by the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Giordano Bellincampi
Typically modest and maybe playing down expectations, Brahms wrote of his much-awaited first symphony: 'And now I have to make the probably very surprising announcement that my symphony is long and not exactly amiable.'
The work's premiere was met with some reserve, considered in some quarters serious and astringent. One critic suggested posting concert hall signs above the doors recommending: "Exit in case of Brahms."
Brahms was running contrary to much of the orchestral music written during his era in Wagnerian and Lisztian veins – lush with passion and often heavily and openly programmatic. He wasn't a populist romantic and kept his instrumental music in the realm of the abstract and, as he famously said, "Composing a symphony is no laughing matter."
His friend and critic, Eduard Hanslick, captured a counter view of the work, writing:
"Seldom, if ever, has the entire musical world awaited a composer’s first symphony with such tense anticipation ... The new symphony is so earnest and complex, so utterly unconcerned with common effects, that it hardly lends itself to quick understanding ... [but] even the layman will immediately recognise it as one of the most distinctive and magnificent works of the symphonic literature."
It certainly reinvigorated the symphonic sonata form in the wake of Beethoven and Brahms's next three symphonies followed relatively quickly.
The composer's first dabble in attempting a symphony had been at Schumann's behest in 1854. These sketches went to other works and he began again the following year with a first movement – only sharing it with his musical confidante, Clara Schumann, seven years later. She was encouraging, but enquiries from eager conductors through the 1860s were ignored by Brahms, and only in 1874 at the age of 41 did he feel ready to begin in earnest. Two years of intense work and revision produced a score, but he worked and revised the symphony right up to the premiere in November 1876.
Programme note by Kevin Keys
Recorded by RNZ in Auckland Town Hall, 7 November 2019
Producer: Tim Dodd; Engineer: Rangi Powick