What Makes Johannes Brahms' First Symphony a Masterpiece?

Dec 11, 2018

The First Symphony of Johannes Brahms is in the great tradition of Beethoven, Mozart, and Haydn. Conductor David Afkham, who finds magic in the mysteries of this music, talked with WRTI's Susan Lewis about why this music intrigues people of every generation.

On Sunday, December 16th at 1 PM on WRTI 90.1, listen to The Philadelphia Orchestra, led by David Afkham, in a program featuring the music of Brahms, Beethoven, and Mozart.

When he was a young composer, Brahms knew he had before him a difficult act to follow.  

"Every great composer after Beethoven had to compare himself to this master, this giant," says conductor David Afkham.  But Brahms had the added burden of praise heaped upon him by his mentor Robert Schumann, who had proclaimed the young composer to be the heir to the legacy of Beethoven. 

It was nearly 25 years later, that Brahms completed his first symphony, which was in many ways an homage to Beethoven.  It's been noted, says Afkham, that at the start of the symphony,  "you hear the footsteps of Beethoven marching behind Brahms."

David Afkham grew up in Germany, steeped in the music of Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms—also Haydn, Schubert, and Schuman, composers he calls the roots of his musical existence.  It's in his blood, he says.

And yet, "these pieces are maybe the most difficult to do because it's absolute music. "

Absolute music, without an explicit story, is nevertheless packed with meaning to be mined anew each time he picks up the score. "What I try to do is reread, restudy.  Ask [myself] how is this phrase now? No, here's hope; no, here's desperation, or maybe it's just color."  

And Brahm's First Symphony? "It's a whole journey through these beautiful diamonds of second and third movements to the triumphant last movement. ... through night to light; drama, tragedy, but at the end there is light."

Afkham says these works are masterpieces in the timeless way they connect with people, "also beautifully differently. One is crying, the other is laughing at the same time through listening to the same music. This is the wide range of what music can evoke in one's heart and mind... With pieces that are so in our tradition, as Mahler said, 'you have to keep the fire burning rather to just pray the ashes.' "

"You have to connect every time to the life we're in. These are masterpieces because they have this quality."