Analysis of Brahms' Symphony no. 1

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Music in the 19th century was being practised in a more traditional way. One of the individuals that has been termed to have dominated the music industry at the time is Beethoven. However, several musicians were able to come up after the end of his era, where some continued with his style of music while others turned to different styles. The musical masters were the likes of Sebastian Bach. Thereafter, Brahms followed with his own uniqueness in the music sector. He did not only perform music for entertainment but the technique he employed brought some impact to those who listened to him. For that reason, Brahms made use of several symphonies at the beginning of his art career. Despite the fact that he appeared to succeed most of Beethoven’s style of music, he mixed it with the modern style. Therefore, there are several symphonies that he made use of; Symphony no. 1 in C minor, Symphony no. 2 in D major, Symphony no. 3 in F major and Symphony no. 4 in E minor (Brahms 2001, p.28).

            However, Symphony no. 1 is highly related to the work that had been previously done by Beethoven. Despite the fact that they seem to correlate, Brahms decided to adopt a more modernised approach in his approach leaving behind the traditional style. It is in the format of a standard four-movement although a lyrical intermezzo comes at its third movement. Besides, its first and fourth movements are developed in allegros, approximating Symphony no. 4 as used by another master in music by the name of Schumann. Besides, Symphony no. 3 possesses its own characteristics. To begin with, its major and minor movements tend to have cross-relations. The second feature that it has is that it contains a wider melodic span that the others. Thirdly, the duple and triple meters have what is known as the metric ambiguity between them. Finally, Symphony no. 4, which is also referred to as the finale has variations in the triple meter over the repeating bars (Brahms 2001, p.34). Therefore, this paper focuses at analysing the musicological perspectives on the symphonic music of Brahms. However, the main focus will be on one symphony that he utilized during his time, which most probably is Symphony no. 1, Op. 68.


            Brahms kept all his attention developing Symphony no. 1, Op. 68 because of the great message and level of entertainment that it would provide. He started working on the symphony in the year 1855 and concluded on it in 1876. In approximation, it took him around 21 years to complete working on it. Although he first began composing the D minor symphony in the period of 1854, he changed his mind and resorted to the C minor and made the latter his priority. For the success of this symphony, he made use of several musical instruments (Brahms 2001, p.42). The instruments included timpani, trumpets, violin, violas, oboes, clarinets, trombones, flutes, cellos, double basses, bassoons horns and finally was the contrabassoon.

            Therefore, the symphony consisted of four movements, which started all along from the C minor and ended at the C major. The first movement is referred to as the Un poco sostenuto, most commonly referred to as Allegro, the C minor. In this instance, Brahms made good use of the timpani in the introduction part allowing the pizzicato strings to expose it. The G key is later used in returning the dominance of the first development, but still in support of the timpani (Brahms 2001, p.48). Also, the cellos, flute and oboe are applied in introducing the melodies before completing it with the G key but this time being plucked.

The second movement of the first symphony is known as the Andante sustenuto. It is also referred to as the E major. Following after the C minor has introduced, it comes in the form of a song because it is sometimes called the song form. It takes the musical form that is often schematized as A-B-A. This means that, section A is played then B comes where after A is played for the second time. An example of the second movement is portrayed in the opening chorus of St. John Passion, which was the work done by Bach (Brahms 2001, p.51). It is also evident from Handel’s Messiah referred to as the “The Trumpet Shall Sound”.

Thirdly, there comes the Un poco allegretto e grazioso, most often stated as the A- flat major. This movement was a little bit quicker, but was done in a much grateful manner. Being the shortest movement among the four, it composes some sense of energy.  However, Brahms managed to perfect of this movement because of much attention he paid to symmetry. It took somehow a ternary form, where the Allegretto came first after which the trio form succeeded. Afterwards, the allegretto then took over from the trio form. In that sense, the allegretto represents the key of the A major that first begins in a calm and clear melody (Brahms 2001, p.58). The presence of the clarinet sees into it that the A theme remains in contact with the Allegretto even in instances where the bars are inverted.

Thereafter, the B theme comes in accompanied by a flute, which has a dotted-eight-note pattern. From the iterations that are seen in B, the bars are stretched and reach to seven, which then welcome the C theme. However, the last two themes, C and D are shorter than the first two and also produce a more angular rhythm compared to their predecessors (Brahms 2001, p.60). For that reason, through the help of the eight-note pizzicato in the strings, they interlock to produce a sixteen-note pattern.

The Trio takes over from the Allegretto at this time, and changes both the time and the key. The key moves to B major, more obviously balancing with the C and D themes at the F minor key. The three instruments useful in this case are the flute, bassoon and oboe. The three tend to induce a joyful melody that comes in a motion that somehow looks stepwise. The string boosts the melody by the addition of the arpeggio, making up most of the material in the trio (Brahms 2001, p.66).

Moments after the actions of the trio, the Allegretto returns but this time accompanied by the coda. However, the return of the allegretto brings some differences based on the first one because this time round it brings about some effect lacking there before. This means that, the second introduction of the allegretto causes some lingering effect, which is mainly experienced in the trio. With the three instruments still in action, the call that appears monotonous is first experienced coming from the clarinet. Thereafter, the rhythm of the three objects meet with that of the A theme leading to a totally different melody being produced. Hence, the introduction of the coda ceases the movement of the triplets and any of the strings (Brahms 2001, p.72). Later on, the arpeggio of the strings is forced to terminate the beats of the new bar.

The fourth and the final movement of this first symphony is Adagio - Allegro non troppo, ma con brio. It is as well referred to as the C major. The movement has been nick named the “vast scope” because of its ability to solve problems. In that case, it eliminates all the problematic issues that had been caused or experienced by the first movement and failed to keep out. The movement is always seen to occur in two sections; the cut-time and the common meter. The sequence first introduces with an ominous sequence within the strings. An anticipation of the A theme of the movement follows in some manner that corresponds to being joyful. Hence, passing the pizzicato string through causes an alteration in the tempo and volume (Brahms 2001, p.77). The result is that, the two factors increase causing an abrupt re-emergence of the theme that had been lost for some time.

The pizzicato strings are passed for the second time to allow action to be performed in the arpeggios. As a result of this, the woodwinds cause the arpeggios to load on the strings, smoothly introducing the Alphorn theme in the section of C major. Thereafter, several actions follow within the C major. To begin with, the Alphorn theme is introduced by the horns and the trombones, which had entered the movement earlier on. A classic orchestral moment filled with shimmering strings and a noble presentation is used in the introduction process. Following the performance of the horns, the flutes take over, transmitting the effect to the brass that in turns responds by creating an exposition. Henceforth, a striding tune starts playing at the C major. However, the tune is much alike to the “Freude” theme found in Ninth Symphony of Beethoven. The violas, violins and the horns are used to introduce the theme, although the support of the pizzicato bass is provided in the progress. The strings repetitively interchange with the bassoons, through the help of the woodwinds to streamline the song. Afterwards, the timpani collaborate with the pizzicato to unleash the orchestra in a higher force than before. Therefore, the arpeggio in association with the bassoon and the contrabassoon pass through the strings, producing an Alphorn tune that paves way for the introduction of the second theme. The latter comes in a manner similar to the Alphorn tune, where it is then introduced by the violins in some low tone (Brahms 2001, p.81). The bassoons, flutes and the oboes join the activity later on, leading to the production of a passage with an energetic transition hence the end of the exposition.

After the exposition process has taken place, the last stage called the development occurs. The section begins in a unique manner, because it gears up by restating the main theme of the movement. Besides, the coda and the main theme of the symphony are recapitulated in whole at this stage. This is done by supporting the strings with chords and being rolled over the timpani. One of the most useful instruments throughout this fourth movement called the oboe then brings about the E – flat transition (Brahms 2001, p.86). Soon after that, a development-heavy section with melody also occurs. It is always accompanied by restatements that are fragmented together with some phrases that are already elaborated.

For that reason, four instruments are used to control the melody that is being received. First of all, the flutes receive it after which it is transmitted to the horns for the purposes of smoothening. The bassoons and pizzicato then provide a higher momentum, allowing the melody to blossom and increase in tempo. Consequently, the orchestra responds by restating the themes but the arpeggios forces it to undergo transition hence the arrival a new element. However, the main theme changes the motif making it to appear on the winds, while being attended to by the flute and oboe. The action does not really take long because it is followed by some strong passage of the arpeggio figures and the elements of the main theme, through the strings. Then, the horns lead the way for the returning motif, which is later followed by some figures fixed between the wind instruments and the strings (Brahms 2001, p.92). For that reason, the Alphorn theme gains some momentum, which first causes effect on the strings before proceeding to the winds.

In addition to that, a restatement occurs in the horns but the shimmering effect of the exposition is seen to be absent. From this point in time, the momentum of the music starts lowering making it to lose the high tempo it possessed before. As a result, the strings start playing in a lowering procession, almost bringing the activities of the movement to a termination. Surprisingly, a full recapitulation is experienced at the second theme, making it to restate and change a little bit compared to the previous exposition. Despite the process of restatement occurring, it shortly comes to an end, allowing the coda to progress in the tonic C major (Brahms 2001, p.107).

From the above descriptions of Brahms first symphony, the content and length of the movements reflect the main reason as to why he took time developing it. It is a symphony that brings the musical aspects out in any way that an individual expects. With many people arguing that the symphony resembles that of Beethoven, others weigh his work with those of Wagner. In a YouTube video titled Brahms Exorcises Two Ghosts In His First Symphony, and dated 16th of November, 2017, a statement is made that, “All listeners immediately notice the influence of Beethoven in the Brahms first symphony. But in this symphony, I hear Brahms equally wrestling with Wagener, particularly the contrapuntal harmony in Tristan and Isolde”. Therefore, this depicts how Brahms uses his wits to bring out some legendary character out of him. While Wagner did not make full progressions of Tristan’s work, Brahms made sure that he made Beethoven’s work to stay put although he does not copy it.

Furthermore, Brahms first symphony is a combination of both the traditional and modern approach of doing music. As portrayed by Musgrave (1983), “Of his treasures which passed on to become prized possessions of the Musik-verein library in Vienna, perhaps the gems were the autograph of Mozart’s G minor Symphony and Haydn’s ‘Sun’ Quartets op.20, the former a gift from Princess Anna of Hesse in acknowledgement of the dedication of the piano Quintet” (p.271). The statement shows Brahms active role in the music sector and how his style of music was being felt in the society. The book also reveals that, he possessed more materials that belonged to Beethoven, which he often referenced to during his music time. “Brahms also possessed many composition sheets of Beethoven as well as a single sheet containing a Beethoven song and Schubert piano piece” (p.272).

Additionally, romanticism dominated the music works that were done by Brahms. This was another major reason as to why many people preferred and admired his music. The tones in his first symphony revolve around the romantic field. The use of the violas and the violins create a romanticised environment, because of the lovely melodies they display. Taruskin (2006, pp.101-171) accepts that the German music is the most romantic and complete type of music that he has ever experienced. Referring to the work that had been done by Brahms, he agreed upon the fact that he had chosen to use instruments that depicted a romantic environment that appeared so lively.

Furthermore, the love for Brahms music continued all through to the 20th century, mainly because of the modern style he had resorted to use. Schoenberg played a bigger role in the year 1933 after conducting a lecture on the important themes portrayed in Brahms music. He also helped bring back the music to people’s minds when he decided to revise on the essay ‘Brahms the Progressive’ in 1947. However, it is argued that his critics played the main role in keeping his music alive. They found out his music to be possessing better ideas and the fact that its foundational basis were strong made it to be supported. Besides, the critical tradition of Germany, which also involved the efforts of Schoenberg, helped see through the survival of Brahms music (Schoenberg 1975, p.400).

Finally, musicology is a term that has dominated the musical sector since its introduction. The term has been elaborated in the book titled Musicology: The Key Concepts, where other important musical terms have well been documented. Taking such steps shows that the value of music in the society is still higher, and the work started by the groups of Beethoven and Brahms would not come to an unexpected end. The analysis of the terms has helped individuals to deepen their musical understanding and more importantly, enabled them to understand its history (Beard and Gloag 2004, p.48). Therefore, introduction of new concepts in the revised edition of the book like cold war, autobiography and glocalisation have allowed modernization of music.


From the musicological symphonies applied by Brahms, his first symphony took him a total of twenty one years to complete. This shows the attention and struggle that he put on the symphony, whose results have been seen to be better later on. The symphony is divided into for movements, where each movement has its own way of working out. However, for the reality of music to be there, several musical instruments have been applied throughout the movements. Some of the musical devices used include the horns, the violas, violins, bassoons, contrabassoons and the oboes. Therefore, many people have openly come out and supported his work because of the unique technique that he applied. Finally, despite borrowing ideas from Beethoven, he recrafted them and applied the combination of the traditional and modern forms of music to come up with a new style.


Beard, D. and Gloag, K., 2004. Musicology: the key concepts. London: Routledge.

Brahms, J., 2001. Johannes Brahms: life and letters. Oxford: Oxford University Press on Demand.

Interesting presentation on the influence of Wagner on Brahms

(Youtube). Available at:               ghostssymphony-no-1.

Musgrave, M., 1983. Brahms the progressive: another view. The Musical Times, 124(1683), pp.291-294.

Taruskin, R., 2006. Music in the nineteenth century: The Oxford history of Western music. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Schoenberg, A., 1975. Brahms the progressive. Style and Idea, pp.398-441.

August 01, 2023




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