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In the year 1854, a 21-year-old Johannes Brahms heard Beethoven's Ninth Symphony for the first time and resolved to write one in the same key (D minor). The following year he wrote to his friend, violinist Joseph Joachim, “I have been trying my hand at a symphony during the past summer, have even orchestrated the first movement and have completed the second and third.” The music of which he was speaking was indeed brought to completion, but not in its originally intended form. Dissatisfied with his unfinished symphony, Brahms recast the material into a sonata for two pianos. But destiny had yet other uses for this symphonically-conceived music, and the sonata’s first two movements came to occupy those same positions in the dramatic First Piano Concerto – still in D minor – although the last movement found a quite different home as the Behold All Flesh section of his German Requiem.

No one helped Brahms to realize his own inner visions more than composer Robert Schumann and his pianist wife Clara. In 1854, a year after the young man’s first meeting with the Schumanns, Robert wrote to their mutual friend Joachim: “But where is Johannes? Is he not yet ready to let drums and trumpets sound? He should always keep in mind the beginning of the Beethoven symphonies; he should try to make something like them.” Schumann was never to realize the fruits of his advice, for he died tragically in an asylum in 1856. But his admonition to Brahms resulted, eventually, in the C-minor First Symphony, for whose beginning and ending Brahms did indeed look to Beethoven.

An early (1862) version of the First Symphony’s opening movement did not have the imposing introduction which later was appended, an introduction in which the composer reveals, at a slow pace, all the important materials we meet in rapid motion in the movement proper, the Allegro. (In the matter of thematic transformation, epitomized by the introductions to the Symphony's first and fourth movements as they presage their Allegros, Brahms was much closer to the methods of Liszt and Wagner than to those of Beethoven.) The throbbing intensity of the introduction (Brahms was ready to let the drums sound) gives way to a sober urgency that recalls the angry young Brahms of, say, the F-minor Piano Sonata (1853). This movement and the fourth, are primers of the compositional methods Brahms practiced with utter mastery: motifs are transformed through changes of rhythm, dynamics, timbre; they are combined, fragmented, and developed with an unerring sense of their inherent possibilities. And it was not until this severely self-critical composer was satisfied with his work that he allowed the First Symphony to be performed, in 1876, some 20-plus years after he made his first symphony efforts.

The strength of Brahms' symphonic convictions is everywhere apparent, and his instinct for the scope and power of the form directly descended from Beethoven (of whose Fifth Symphony three-shorts-and-a-long rhythm Brahms was not loath to invoke repeatedly). The entire first movement is keenly dramatic, nowhere more so than in the extended, slowly building passage leading to the recapitulation. Here, Brahms' sense of dynamic expansion is definitive; this is as grand a symphonic movement as he ever conceived.

The two central movements present the other side of the Brahmsian coin: melting lyricism and soaring expressiveness in an Andante that closes with those rapturous violin solos that must have paved the way for his Violin Concerto; gentle Schubertian smiles through tears contrasted with sinewy boisterousness in an Allegretto that is Brahms’ personalized version of a Beethoven scherzo.

The Finale’s introduction, with fragments of the ensuing Allegro passing before our eyes, is more extended than the first movement’s and evolves a fearsomeness bordering on terror. This dark emotional tone is finally pierced by a radiant horn call, and by a solemn chorale that speaks of deliverance and peace. Then, that theme begins which has been called Brahms’ version of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy theme in the Ninth Symphony. In its reappearances this grand melody is a source of deep comfort, and in its radical transformations a nucleus for the imposing grandeur that unfolds on the way to blazing, unrestrained triumph.

- Orrin Howard