Conducting Brahms 1st symphony
As we all know Brahms, like all great composers, presents a myriad of challenges for the interpreter. The whole introduction to his first symphony (which you can read about in this post) will make any conductor question himself about balance, lines, and tempo. Let’s pick up where we left off: the end of the introduction. Here’s the full score if you don’t have a physical one at hand. The first question is: how do I deal with the tempo transition?
I could, of course, use the old mathematical equation of 8th note = dotted quarter. As much as that would be a perfectly legitimate solution, it is also the easiest one, and not necessarily the best one. Brahms uses the term “Allegro“, which is not a specific tempo indication, but, rather, a feeling and it needs to work for the whole movement.
This movement is often heard at a quite fast pace, which makes it very exciting at the beginning but then falls flat on its face when one wants to hear the notes and not just the impetuous sway of the first musical gesture: in other words, going too fast means losing the dramatic quality of the 16th notes.
These 16th notes are not a mere ornament, they are an integral part of the theme. And, as a matter of fact, they will be “reused” over and over again transformed in different ways, like this:
As general indication, taking the “Allegro” slightly slower than the “Un poco sostenuto” should do the trick. It will also help making the transition to the “Meno allegro” at the end of the movement smoother and less abrupt, closing the circle with the introduction, to which the coda clearly refers to.
The balance challenges of the 3 lines in the introduction come back here as the themes get reworked and reorchestrated: the violin line from the introduction is now passed to the cellos and bassoon; the violas and second violins take on the pulsing eight notes of the timpani; the first violins play a sweeping variation on the motive at letter A.
The entire movement is filled by the juxtaposition of these themes, in one form or another, and is arguably very difficult to balance. Again, not too fast of a tempo will help but do take into consideration the character of the lines and where they originated from.
For example: as mentioned, the violas and second violins line comes from the timpani. Hence, they should not be treated as a mere accompaniment but should hold the same pulsing weight.
Make sure the crescendo of the first violins on bar 43 does not lead to a fortissimo or it will obliterate the 16th in the cellos and bassoons. Plus, you’ll have no way to go on the più’ forte on bar 46. Intention, rather than volume, is the key.
Watch out for the downbeat of bar 45: there’s a tendency to play the quarter note shorter, as if it had a dot on top, like the 8th note of the cellos and bassoons. This one needs to fulfill its whole value in order not to drop the tension and make it sound like a hysterical Rossini.
Notice the crescendo in the bottom line on bars 46-47: it’s another balance trap. The key here is keeping the first violins from blasting away their line. They are already in their high register and will have no problem in being heard but if they’re too loud the bottom parts will be forced to make a bigger crescendo. Consequently, fortissimo at bar 51 will lose its effect.
It’s extraordinary how Brahms transforms the same material in a kaleidoscope of variations that always sound familiar and yet are different. The main line of the first violin comes back repeatedly, bouncing back between woodwinds and strings; then it is transformed to get to the “second theme” of the movement. The chromatic motive is also omnipresent, inverted at letter B (in the cellos and basses)
and taking the shape of melodic pizzicatos in the strings at bar 105. Keep your stroke short and tight here as it will really help the ensemble.
Bar 148-157 offer a great chance to register the lines and use your hands independently: use your left hand for the horn, pulsing on the first beat of bar 149 and registering the line upwards and downward; do the same for the clarinet with your right hand; then again, left on the horn, right on the flute and oboe; keep the right for the clarinet and bassoon and the left for the horn(s); your right hand will be in place for the strings, and especially the violas.
Don’t get tricked by the agitato marking at bar 177: it is NOT an indication of a tempo change. It is, again, an indication of the intention and the character of the piece. Speeding up here would also pose the problem of getting back to tempo when you take the repeat.
To repeat or not to repeat?
By the way: should the repeat be observed? It’s an eternal debate: earlier accounts want Brahms to repeat the exposition. On the other hand, at one point he seemed to have said that once the audience was accustomed to the piece there was no necessity for it. Again, these are Brahms’ words that have been reported, so we don’t know for sure to what extent they are truthful.
Personally, I prefer to repeat the exposition, and I do not feel like it impedes the dramatic flowing. With the repeat and the ear being exposed to a C minor center for quite some time, the plunging into B major of the second ending results much more dramatic.
This brings us to the end of the exposition: the development, playing with different fragments of the usual motives, poses, again, the challenge of balancing everything carefully.
On bar 273 another “listen carefully” (from a conducting point of view) event occurs: Brahms writes a long dominant pedal (by the way, look at the alternating rhythms between cellos and timpani: does that remind you of anything? 😉 ) and the music seems to relax. It’s important to keep the tension in the character of those eight notes as this pedal is a preparation for the real big crescendo that starts at bar 294. It’s particularly important to pace this crescendo in order to achieve the real fortissimo only at bar 321. As musicologist Donald Tovey defines it, referring to the whole passage from letter H to the recapitulation, this is “probably the longest and most intense [passage] that has ever been produced at this part of a first movement” and it is “breathlessly exciting”.
On a final note, notice how before the “Meno Allegro” there is no rallentando marking. The rallentando is already written out in the music, specifically in the cello line: the cellos go from playing eight notes to quarter notes in duplets to regular quarter notes. This creates a natural rallentando in the music without the need to add an extra one to it, thus avoiding the risk of slowing down too much into the Meno Allegro.
This is a massive piece of repertoire which presents challenges for both young and experienced conductors. As with any score, start from the big picture and then, gradually, dive deeper into its details.