Johannes Brahms; 7 May 1833 - 3 April 1897) was a German composer and pianist.
Born in Hamburg into a Lutheran family, Brahms spent much of his professional life in Vienna, Austria, where he was a leader of the musical scene. In his lifetime, Brahms's popularity and influence were considerable; following a comment by the nineteenth- century conductor Hans von Bülow, he is sometimes grouped with Johann Sebastian Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven as one of the "Three Bs".
Brahms composed for piano, chamber ensembles, symphony orchestra, and for voice and chorus. A virtuoso pianist, he premiered many of his own works; he worked with some of the leading performers of his time, including the pianist Clara Schumann and the violinist Joseph Joachim. Many of his works have become staples of the modern concert repertoire. Brahms, an uncompromising perfectionist, destroyed some of his works and left others unpublished.
Brahms is often considered both a traditionalist and an innovator. His music is firmly rooted in the structures and compositional techniques of the Baroque and Classical masters. He was a master of counterpoint, the complex and highly disciplined art for which Johann Sebastian Bach is famous, and of development, a compositional ethos pioneered by Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, and other composers. Brahms aimed to honour the "purity" of these venerable "German" structures and advance them into a Romantic idiom, in the process creating bold new approaches to harmony and melody. While many contemporaries found his music too academic, his contribution and craftsmanship have been admired by subsequent figures as diverse as Arnold Schoenberg and Edward Elgar. The diligent, highly constructed nature of Brahms's works was a starting point and an inspiration for a generation of composers.
Owing to the family's poverty, the adolescent Brahms had to contribute to the family's income by playing the piano in dance halls.
He began to compose quite early in life, but later destroyed most copies of his first works; for instance, Louise Japha, a fellow-pupil of Marxsen, reported a piano sonata, that Brahms had played or improvised at the age of 11, had been destroyed.
He went on a concert tour as accompanist to the Hungarian violinist Eduard Reményi in April and May 1853. On this tour he met Joseph Joachim at Hanover, and went on to the Court of Weimar where he met Franz Liszt, Peter Cornelius, and Joachim Raff. According to several witnesses of Brahms's meeting with Liszt (at which Liszt performed Brahms's Scherzo, Op. 4, at sight), Reményi was offended by Brahms's failure to praise Liszt's Sonata in B minor wholeheartedly (Brahms supposedly fell asleep during a performance of the recently composed work), and they parted company shortly afterwards. Brahms later excused himself, saying that he could not help it, having been exhausted by his travels.
Brahms and Schumann
Joachim had given Brahms a letter of introduction to Robert Schumann, and after a walking tour in the Rhineland, Brahms took the train to Düsseldorf, and was welcomed into the Schumann family on arrival there. Schumann, amazed by the 20-year-old's talent, published an article entitled "Neue Bahnen" (New Paths) in the 28 October 1853 issue of the journal Neue Zeitschrift für Musik alerting the public to the young man, who, he claimed, was "destined to give ideal expression to the times." This pronouncement was received with some scepticism outside of Schumann's immediate circle, and may have increased Brahms's naturally self-critical need to perfect his works and technique. While he was in Düsseldorf, Brahms participated with Schumann and Albert Dietrich in writing a sonata for Joachim; this is known as the "F-A-E Sonata - Free but Lonely" (German: Frei aber einsam).
Brahms became very attached to Schumann's wife, the composer and pianist Clara, fourteen years Brahms's senior, with whom he would carry on a lifelong, emotionally passionate relationship. Brahms never married, despite strong feelings for several women and despite entering into an engagement, soon broken off, with Agathe von Siebold in Göttingen in 1859. After Schumann's attempted suicide and subsequent confinement in a mental sanatorium near Bonn in February 1854, Brahms was the main intercessor between Clara and her husband, and found himself virtually head of the household.
After Schumann's death, Brahms hurried to Düsseldorf and for the next two years lived in an apartment above the Schumanns' house, and sacrificed his career and his art for Clara's sake. The question of Brahms and Clara Schumann is perhaps the most mysterious in music history, alongside that of Beethoven's "Immortal Beloved". Whether they were actually lovers is unknown, but their destruction of their letters to each other may point to something beyond a desire for privacy.
Hamburg, where he formed and conducted a ladies' choir, and Detmold in the Principality of Lippe, where he was court music-teacher and conductor.
He first visited Vienna in 1862, staying there over the winter, and, in 1863, was appointed conductor of the Vienna Singakademie.
From 1872 to 1875, he was director of the concerts of the Vienna Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde; afterwards, he accepted no formal position.
He declined an honorary doctorate of music from University of Cambridge in 1877, but accepted one from the University of Breslau in 1879, and composed the Academic Festival Overture as a gesture of appreciation.
His works were labelled old-fashioned by the 'New German School' whose principal figures included Liszt and Richard Wagner. Brahms admired some of Wagner's music and admired Liszt as a great pianist, but the conflict between the two schools, known as the War of the Romantics, soon embroiled all of musical Europe. In the Brahms camp were his close friends: Clara Schumann, the influential music critic Eduard Hanslick, and the leading Viennese surgeon Theodor Billroth.
In 1860, Brahms attempted to organize a public protest against some of the wilder excesses of the Wagnerians' music. This took the form of a manifesto, written by Brahms and Joachim jointly. The manifesto, which was published prematurely with only three supporting signatures, was a failure, and he never engaged in public polemics again.
It was the premiere of A German Requiem, his largest choral work, in Bremen, in 1868, that confirmed Brahms's European reputation and led many to accept that he had conquered Beethoven and the symphony. This may have given him the confidence finally to complete a number of works that he had wrestled with over many years, such as the cantata Rinaldo, his first string quartet, third piano quartet, and most notably his first symphony. This appeared in 1876, though it had been begun (and a version of the first movement seen by some of his friends) in the early 1860s. The other three symphonies then followed in 1877, 1883, and 1885. From 1881, he was able to try out his new orchestral works with the court orchestra of the Duke of Meiningen, whose conductor was Hans von Bülow. He was the soloist at the premiere of his Piano Concerto No. 2 in 1881, in Pest.
In 1890, the 57-year-old Brahms resolved to give up composing. However, as it turned out, he was unable to abide by his decision, and in the years before his death he produced a number of acknowledged masterpieces. His admiration for Richard Mühlfeld, clarinetist with the Meiningen orchestra, moved him to compose the Clarinet Trio, Op. 114, Clarinet Quintet, Op. 115 (1891), and the two Clarinet Sonatas, Op. 120 (1894). He also wrote several cycles of piano pieces, Opp. 116-119, the Vier ernste Gesänge (Four Serious Songs), Op. 121 (1896), and the Eleven Chorale Preludes for organ, Op. 122 (1896).
While completing the Op. 121 songs, Brahms developed cancer (sources differ on whether this was of the liver or pancreas). His condition gradually worsened and he died on 3 April 1897, aged 63. Brahms is buried in the Zentralfriedhof in Vienna.
Brahms wrote a number of major works for orchestra, including two serenades, four symphonies, two piano concertos (No. 1 in D minor; No. 2 in B-flat major), a Violin Concerto, a Double Concerto for violin and cello, and two companion orchestral overtures, the Academic Festival Overture and the Tragic Overture.
Brahms's works in variation form include, among others, the Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel and the Paganini Variations, both for solo piano, and the Variations on a Theme by Haydn (now sometimes called the Saint Anthony Variations) in versions for two pianos and for orchestra. The final movement of the Fourth Symphony, Op. 98, is formally a passacaglia.
Brahms was an extreme perfectionist. He destroyed many early works - including a Violin Sonata he had performed with Reményi and violinist Ferdinand David - and once claimed to have destroyed 20 string quartets before he issued his official First in 1873. Over the course of several years, he changed an original project for a symphony in D minor into his first piano concerto. In another instance of devotion to detail, he laboured over the official First Symphony for almost fifteen years, from about 1861 to 1876. Even after its first few performances, Brahms destroyed the original slow movement and substituted another before the score was published. (A conjectural restoration of the original slow movement has been published by Robert Pascall.)
Another factor that contributed to Brahms's perfectionism was that Schumann had announced early on that Brahms was to become the next great composer like Beethoven, a prediction that Brahms was determined to live up to. This prediction hardly added to the composer's self-confidence, and may have contributed to the delay in producing the First Symphony.
Brahms strongly preferred writing absolute music that does not refer to an explicit scene or narrative, and he never wrote an opera or a symphonic poem.
Brahms maintained a Classical sense of form and order in his works - in contrast to the opulence of the music of many of his contemporaries. Thus many admirers (though not necessarily Brahms himself) saw him as the champion of traditional forms and "pure music", as opposed to the "New German" embrace of programme music.
Brahms venerated Beethoven: in the composer's home, a marble bust of Beethoven looked down on the spot where he composed, and some passages in his works are reminiscent of Beethoven's style. Brahms's First Symphony bears strongly the influence of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, as the two works are both in C minor, and end in the struggle towards a C major triumph. The main theme of the finale of the First Symphony is also reminiscent of the main theme of the finale of Beethoven's Ninth, and when this resemblance was pointed out to Brahms, he replied that any ass - jeder Esel - could see that. In 1876, when the work was premiered in Vienna, it was immediately hailed as "Beethoven's Tenth". However, the similarity of Brahms's music to that of late Beethoven had first been noted as early as November 1853, in a letter from Albert Dietrich to Ernst Naumann.
Brahms was a lifelong friend of Johann Strauss II, though they were very different as composers. Brahms even struggled to get to the Theater an der Wien in Vienna for the premiere of Strauss's operetta Die Göttin der Vernunft in 1897 before his death. Perhaps the greatest tribute that Brahms paid to Strauss was his remark that he would have given anything to have written The Blue Danube waltz. An old anecdote recounts that when Strauss's wife Adele asked Brahms to autograph her fan, he wrote the first few notes of the "Blue Danube" waltz, and then wrote the words "Unfortunately not by Johannes Brahms!" underneath.
Symphonies by Johannes Brahms
No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68 No. 2 in D major, Op. 73 No. 3 in F major, Op. 90 No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98
The Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68, is a symphony written by Johannes Brahms. Brahms spent at least fourteen years completing this work, whose sketches date from 1854. Brahms himself declared that the symphony, from sketches to finishing touches, took 21 years, from 1855 to 1876. The premiere of this symphony, conducted by the composer's friend Felix Otto Dessoff, occurred on November 4, 1876, in Karlsruhe, then in the Grand Duchy of Baden. A typical performance lasts between 45 and 50 minutes.
I. Un poco sostenuto - Allegro (15:09)
II. Andante sostenuto (8:37)
III. Un poco allegretto e grazioso (4:55)
IV. Adagio - PiĚ andante - Allegro non troppo, ma con brio (16:57)
The symphony is scored for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, and strings.
The symphony is in four movements, marked as follows:
Un poco sostenuto - Allegro - Meno allegro (C minor)
Andante sostenuto (E major)
Un poco allegretto e grazioso (A-flat major)
Adagio - PiĚ andante - Allegro non troppo, ma con brio - PiĚ allegro (C minor/C major)
The third movement is in a traditional ternary form (ABA). It is composed of the Allegretto and contrasting “trio” section, followed by a reprise of the Allegretto material and coda. A notable aspect of this movement is Brahms’s careful attention to symmetry.
The form could be described as: A B A’ B’ C D C’ D’ A’’—Trio—A’’’ B ’’ A’’’’ Coda
The Allegretto is in the key of A-flat major and begins with a calm, stepwise melody in the clarinet. The four bar figure is extended to an irregular five bars through a small bridge between the phrases by the strings. The clarinet rounds off the “A” theme in the Allegretto with an inversion of the first five bars heard.
The B theme enters in m. 11 and features a descending dotted-eighth pattern in the flute, clarinet, and bassoon with the strings echoing the rhythm in rising and falling figures. After eight measures, A’ appears with the violins iterating the first theme and a longer, chromatic bridge section that extends the phrase structure to seven bars. B’ is presented with an extension into C.
The C and D themes differ from the first two in that they are shorter and more angular rhythmically. The A and B themes feature an almost constant eighth note pizzicato in the strings, whereas C and D are more complex with an interlocking sixteenth note pattern accompanying the winds. Movement from the major mode to F minor also marks these sections as apart from preceding material. This obvious contrast in character and mood can lend one to think of the C and D sections as a sort of “trio” within the first Allegretto section in the larger ternary form displayed by the movement as a whole. The symmetry within one section reflects the symmetry of the whole.
A’’ closes off the first major section with the clarinet stating the first theme, much as it did in the beginning, finishing with a transition to the trio.
The Trio offers a change of key, as well as a change of time. The key moves to B major, an enharmonic minor third away from A-flat. This key movement balances with the C and D sections in F minor, also a minor third away from the home key but in the opposite direction. The time signature changes from a stately 2/4 to a more pastoral and dance-like 6/8. The flute, oboe, and bassoon introduce a joyful melody in stepwise motion as in the A theme. The strings add a downward three-note arpeggio. These two motives make up the bulk of the trio material. Restatement and development of those themes ensue until the brass and winds join together for a final repeat of the melody. The second ending brings the orchestra back into 2/4 time and to A’’’.
Return of the Allegretto
A major difference between A’’’ and the earlier iterations of A is the lingering effect of the trio upon the movement. The monotone call from the opening of the trio melody appears over the clarinet melody in the flute, oboe, and bassoon. The rhythmic effect of triplets also invades the pure eighth note world of the A theme, producing polyrhythms. Instead of the inversion of the theme we expect in the second phrase of A, the strings take over and offer an entirely different melody, but with essentially the same contour as the inversion. B’’ occupies a significantly larger space of the reprise than it does in the previous Allegretto. It leads through an extended transition to the last, quiet statement of A in unison by the strings. Strings of dotted eighth notes end the movement proper with ideas from the B theme.
The entry to the coda is marked “poco a poco piĚ tranquillo” and the movement ends with the gentle throbbing of triplets quoted from the trio section. The final few bars end somewhat abruptly with the downward arpeggio of the strings in the trio finishing on the downbeat of a new bar.
Brahms began composing his first symphony in 1854, but much of his work underwent radical changes. The long gestation of the symphony may be attributed to two factors. First, Brahms' self-critical fastidiousness led him to destroy many of his early works. Second, there was an expectation from Brahms' friends and the public that he would continue "Beethoven's inheritance" and produce a symphony of commensurate dignity and intellectual scope—an expectation that Brahms felt he could not fulfill easily in view of the monumental reputation of Beethoven.
The value and importance of Brahms' achievements were recognized by Vienna's most powerful critic, the staunchly conservative Eduard Hanslick. The conductor Hans von Bülow was moved in 1877 to call the symphony "Beethoven's Tenth", due to perceived similarities between the work and various compositions of Beethoven. It is often remarked that there is a strong resemblance between the main theme of the finale of Brahms' First Symphony and the main theme of the finale of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Also, Brahms uses the rhythm of the "fate" motto from the opening of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. This rather annoyed Brahms; he felt that this amounted to accusations of plagiarism, whereas he saw his use of Beethoven's idiom in this symphony as an act of conscious homage. Brahms himself said, when comment was made on the similarity with Beethoven, "any ass can see that." Nevertheless, this work is still sometimes (though rarely) referred to as "Beethoven's Tenth". However, Brahms' horn theme, with the "fate" rhythm, was noted in a letter to Clara Schumann (dated 1868), overheard in an alphorn's playing.
Fritz Simrock, Brahms' friend and publisher, did not receive the score until after the work had been performed in three cities - and Brahms still wished trial performances in at least three more.
The symphony begins with a broad introduction wherein three key elements are heard simultaneously: the low drumming, the rising figure in the strings, and the falling figure in the winds. This introduction was constructed after the remainder of the piece had been scored. The Allegro section of the movement is a large orchestral sonata, wherein musical ideas are stated, developed, and restated with altered relationships among them.
The second and third movements are lighter in tone and tension than the first and last movements. The slow movement, Andante sostenuto, exhibits gentle lyricism through three sections, the third of which is a new treatment of the themes from the first. The long violin solo is reminiscent of some of Beethoven's later works: the late quartets and Missa Solemnis. The third, scherzo-like movement, has an easy spirit yet is full of complex rhythms and interwoven textures.
The fourth movement begins with a slow introduction, where a new melody competes with "gloomy dramatic rhetoric." In the Piu andante section, the horns and timpani introduce a tune that Brahms heard from an Alpine shepherd with the words, "High on the hill, deep in the dale, I send you a thousand greetings!" This movement contains melodies reminiscent of Beethoven symphony No. 9. The last section—Allegro non troppo, ma con brio—contains a grand melody in a major key, as the novel, Beethoven- like main subject of the grand finale.
The Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 73, was composed by Johannes Brahms in the summer of 1877 during a visit to Pörtschach am Wörthersee, a town in the Austrian province of Carinthia. Its composition was brief in comparison with the fifteen years it took Brahms to complete his First Symphony. The symphony is scored for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, and strings.
The cheery and almost pastoral mood of the symphony often invite comparisons with Beethoven's Sixth Symphony, but, perhaps mischievously Brahms wrote to his publisher on November 22, 1877, that the symphony "is so melancholy that you will not be able to bear it. I have never written anything so sad, and the score must come out in mourning."
The premiere was given in Vienna on December 30, 1877 by the Vienna Philharmonic under the direction of Hans Richter; Walter Frisch notes that it had originally been scheduled for December 9th, but "in one of those little ironies of music history, it had to be postponed [because] the players were so preoccupied with learning Das Rheingold by Richard Wagner ." A typical performance lasts between 40 and 50 minutes.
Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 73
I. Allegro non troppo (16:40)
II. Adagio non troppo (9:16)
III. Allegretto Grazioso (5:03)
IV. Allegro Con Spirito (9:45)
In the Second Symphony, Brahms preserved the structural principles of the classical symphony, in which two lively outer movements frame a slow second movement followed by a short scherzo.
I. Allegro non troppo
The cellos and double-basses start the first-movement sonata form in a tranquil mood by introducing the first phrase of the principal theme, which is continued by the horns. The woodwinds develop the section and other instruments join in gradually progressing to a full-bodied forte (at bar 58). At bar 82, the cellos and violas introduce a new theme in F-sharp minor, which eventually moves to A major. After a development section based mostly on motives of the principal theme group, the recapitulation begins at bar 302, with the second theme returning at bar 350. Towards the conclusion of the movement, Brahms marked bar 497 as in tempo, sempre tranquillo, and it is this mood which pervades the remainder of the movement as it closes in the home key of D major.
Brahms bases much of the first movement on a melody he formerly composed for Wiegenlied, Op. 49, the tune commonly referred to as "Brahms's Lullaby". It is introduced at bar 82 and is continually brought back, reshaped and changed both rhythmically and harmonically.
II. Adagio non troppo
A brooding theme introduced by the cellos from bars 1 to 12, with a counter-melody in the bassoons, begins the second movement (also in sonata form). A second theme, marked L'istesso tempo, ma grazioso, appears in bar 33. After a brief development section, the recapitulation is highly modified. The movement then finishes with a coda- like section in which the main theme is reintroduced in the end.
An interesting use of thematic material is used in this movement. Here we see the use of the developing variation of the theme.
III. Allegretto grazioso (quasi andantino)
The third movement scherzo opens with pizzicato cellos accompanying a lilting oboe melody in G major. A contrasting section in 2/4 time marked Presto ma non assai begins in the strings, and this theme is soon taken over by the full orchestra (minus trumpets). Bar 107 returns to the main tempo and gentle mood, but the idyll setting is again disrupted in bar 126 when the earlier Presto marking makes a re-entry, this time in a 3/8 variation. Brahms yet again diverts the movement back into its principal tempo (bar 194) and thereafter to its peaceful close.
The third movement contains very light articulated sections, which could be due to the influence of Mozart or Schubert. This lighter element provides a contrast to the previous two movements. This movement is the shortest of all Brahms' symphonic work.
IV. Allegro con spirito
Busy-sounding (but quiet) strings begin the final Allegro con spirito, again in sonata form. A loud section breaks in unexpectedly in bar 23 with the full orchestra. As the excitement appears to fade away, violins introduce a new subject in A major marked largamente (to be played broadly). The wind instruments repeat this until it develops into a climax. Bar 155 of the movement repeats the symphony's first subject again, but instead of the joyful outburst heard earlier, Brahms introduces the movement's development section. A mid-movement tranquillo section (bar 206, and reappearing in the coda) elaborates earlier material and slows down the movement to allow a build up of energy into the recapitulation. The first theme comes in again (bar 244) and the familiar orchestral forte is played. The second theme also reappears in the tonic key. Towards the end of the symphony, descending chords and a mazy run of notes by various instruments of the orchestra (bars 395 to 412) sound out the second theme again but this time drowned out in a blaze of brass instruments as the symphony ends in a triumphant mood.
The Symphony No. 3 in F major, Op. 90, is a symphony written by Johannes Brahms. The work was written in the summer of 1883 at Wiesbaden, nearly six years after he completed his Second Symphony. In the interim Brahms had written some of his greatest works, including the Violin Concerto, two overtures (Tragic Overture and Academic Festival Overture), and the Second Piano Concerto.
The premiere performance was given on 2 December 1883 by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, under the direction of Hans Richter. The shortest of Brahms' four symphonies, a typical performance lasts between 30 and 40 minutes.
The symphony is scored for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, a contrabassoon, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, and strings.
The symphony is in four movements, marked as follows:
Allegro con brio (F major), in sonata form.
Andante (C major), in a modified sonata form.
Poco allegretto (C minor), in ternary form (A B A').
Allegro (F minor/F major), in a modified sonata form.
Hans Richter, who conducted the premiere of the symphony, proclaimed it to be Brahms' Eroica. The symphony was well received, more so than his Second Symphony. Although Richard Wagner had died earlier that year, the public feud between Brahms and Wagner had not yet subsided. Wagner enthusiasts tried to interfere with the symphony's premiere, and the conflict between the two factions nearly brought about a duel.
After each performance, Brahms polished his score further, until it was published in May 1884. His friend and influential music critic Eduard Hanslick said, "Many music lovers will prefer the titanic force of the First Symphony; others, the untroubled charm of the Second, but the Third strikes me as being artistically the most nearly perfect."
A musical motto consisting of three notes, F-A-flat-F, was significant to Brahms. In 1853 his friend Joseph Joachim had taken as his motto "Free, but lonely", in German, Frei aber einsam, and from the notes represented by the first letters of these words, F- A-E, Schumann, Brahms and Dietrich had jointly composed a violin sonata dedicated to Joachim. At the time of the Third Symphony, Brahms was a fifty-year-old bachelor who declared himself to be Frei aber froh, "Free but Happy". His F-A-F motto, and some altered variations of it, can be heard throughout the symphony.
At the beginning of the symphony the motto is the melody of the first three measures, and it is the bass line underlying the main theme in the next three. The motto persists, either boldly or disguised, as the melody or accompaniment throughout the movement. For the third movement, poco allegretto instead of using a rapid scherzo, standard in 19th century symphony, Brahms created a unique kind of third movement that is moderate in tempo (poco allegretto) and intensely lyrical in character. The finale is a lyrical, passionate movement, rich in melody that is intensely exploited, altered, and developed. The movement ends with reference to the motto heard in the first movement - one which quotes a motif heard in Schumann's Symphony No. 3, Rhenish in the first movement just before the second theme enters in the recapitulation - then fades away to a quiet ending.
The Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98 by Johannes Brahms is the last of his symphonies. Brahms began working on the piece in Mürzzuschlag. then in the Austro- Hungarian Empire, in 1884, just a year after completing his Symphony No. 3, and completed it in 1885.
The symphony is scored for two flutes (one doubling on piccolo), two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, triangle (third movement only), and strings.
The symphony is divided into four movements with the following tempo markings:
Allegro non troppo (E minor)
Andante moderato (E major)
Allegro giocoso (C major)
Allegro energico e passionato (E minor)
A typical performance lasts about 40 minutes.
First movement: Allegro non troppo
This movement is in a conventional first movement sonata form:
Section Key Description
Exposition: Bar 1 Primary Theme E minor A sense of rhythmic instability starting on the anacrusis. This relatively fragmented melody forms a descending sequence in the upper instruments in dialogue with the lower instruments. The notes (taken out of register) outline a descending major 3rd - B, G, E, C, A, F sharp, etc. - a unifying motif for this work.
Bar 19 Transition Goes from E minor to the dominant B minor Starts by fragmenting the P theme
Bar 53 Medial Caesura Introduces 4 bars of caesura fill, a rhythmic pattern in the wood winds
Bar 57 Secondary Theme 1 B minor Initially in the cellos, then passed up into the violins.
Bar 95 Secondary Theme 2 B major - parallel major of B minor In the woodwinds.
Bar 107 Coda B major Develops the rhythm introduced in the transition from pp to ff.
Bar 137 Re-transition Lead from B major into E minor Takes from P theme material
Bar 145 Development Various It starts with a statement of the P theme before leading away into a development
Bar 246 Recapitulation E minor It starts with an augmented statement of the P theme in the upper instruments with C major harmony, but then resumes the standard form of a recapitulation.
Second movement: Andante moderato
A requiem style movement with a phrygian sound from the horns, this has a modified sonata form with no development section.
Third movement: Allegro giocoso
This which was written last, resounds with a triangle. It is also in sonata form.
Fourth movement: Allegro energico e passionato
This last movement is notable as a rare example of a symphonic passacaglia, which is similar to a chaconne with the slight difference that the subject can appear in more voices than the bass. For the repeating theme, Brahms adapted the chaconne theme in the closing movement of Johann Sebastian Bach's cantata, Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich, BWV 150.
An analysis of this last movement by Walter Frisch provides yet further interpretation to Brahms' structure of this work, by giving sections sonata form dimensions.
The symphony is rich in allusions, most notably to various Beethoven compositions. The symphony may well have been inspired by the play Antony and Cleopatra that Brahms had been researching at the time.
Arnold Schoenberg, in his essay Brahms the Progressive (Brahms is often characterized as being a conservative composer), pointed out several thematic relationships in the score, as does Malcolm MacDonald in his biography of the composer. The first half of the chaconne theme is anticipated in the bass during the coda at an important point of the preceding movement; and the first movement's descending thirds, transposed by a fifth, appear in counterpoint during one of the final variations of the chaconne.
The work was given its premiere in Meiningen on October 25, 1885 with Brahms himself conducting. The piece had earlier been given to a small private audience in a version for two pianos, played by Brahms and Ignaz Brüll. Brahms' friend and biographer Max Kalbeck, reported that the critic Eduard Hanslick, acting as one of the page-turners, exclaimed on hearing the first movement at this performance: "For this whole movement I had the feeling that I was being given a beating by two incredibly intelligent people." Hanslick later spoke more approvingly of it, however.