Brahms 1- first thoughts on re-opening a favorite score

It is long past time that I write a bit about music, and at the risk of boring you to tears, I thought it might be interesting to talk a bit about the private and arcane world of score study.

In expectation of Sam’s arrival, I managed to keep about a month free of concerts. This has meant that I’ve had an unusually long period of time to think about my upcoming concert with the Oregon East Symphony on April 26, when we will finish our season with two of my favourite pieces- Strauss’s Death and Transfiguration, and Brahms’ Symphony no. 1.

The Brahms is very, very dear to me, and a piece I’ve probably played and studied  as much as any in the repertoire. In my cello-playing life, I certainly performed it 3 times for every Beethoven 5 I ever did. It was also one of the first pieces I ever studied properly as a conductor, and the first one I conducted from memory in my first semester of study with Chris Zimmerman. Of course, Chris is now my colleague on the faculty of the Rose City International Conductor’s Workshop, and it was quite a feeling to teach Brahms 1 in our first summer together alongside Chris. I was lucky to learn it with him, as it is his party piece, and a work he knows inside and out.

Since then, I’ve covered it, rehearsed it, read it, performed it, done it on auditions, taught it, performed it again and so on. All this in spite of the fact that I tend to treat all of the Brahms symphonies as quite sacred, and avoid doing them under less-than-ideal circumstances. It is no accident that this will be my first Brahms symphony with the OES, coming after 3 Mahler symphonies. Don’t believe the hype- Brahms is always harder than Mahler or Strauss or Stravinsky.

Coming back to a piece that you know well and love deeply is always humbling, as there is so much to discover anew every time, and my thinking on Brahms 1 has evolved tremendously over the years. It can also be strangely stressful- knowing where the problems are in a piece can take some of the fun out of studying it. I keep catching myself thinking “ah, that 3rd bass saxophone part is so difficult and bloody Zebidiah is such a rusher, he’ll mangle it at the first rehearsal!” Toscanini once said that (bad) orchestra musicians exist to destroy his dreams. The tragic corollary is that they can haunt your waking hours even from afar, so that by the time old Zebidiah massacres the sax solo for the fist time, it is as if he’s done it 100 times in your head.

So, when preparing for a new performance of a piece like this, I find it essential to forget a bit about performance, and about the inevitably flawed contributions to be made by yourself and your colleagues, and try, try, try to connect only to the music in the most idealized sense.

In a sense, Brahms, more than most composers, makes it easier to feel as though you’re always learning his works for the first time. There are no easy answers in Brahms- no metronome markings, few indications of tempo nuances, and even those often ask more questions than they answer. You can’t simply “learn” a Brahms symphony- they are not conductor proofed in the way the Mahler symphonies are. You have to struggle, and you have to make hard choices in a world of ambiguity and paradox.

For instance, I noticed recently that the “animato” at letter D and K in the last movement doesn’t appear in Brahms’ manuscript (which has been reprinted cheaply by Dover and is well worth buying). However, the original Simrock edition, the Vienna Gesellschaft edition edited by Hans Gal and the new Henle Urtext edited by Robert Pascal all have both “animatos.” Irritatingly, the Pascal edition critical notes seem to only be available in the hardbound $330 version of the score, which, of course, the RWCMD library doesn’t have, so I have been unable to discover his rational for leaving them in.

I was relieved to see that my old boss Gunther Schuller had noted their absence in his long essay on Brahms 1 in his book The Compleat Conductor. Later on, I found one recording by Eugen Jochum (in many ways, the best recording I’ve found of the piece), that does away with them. Instead, Jochum starts the Allegro non troppo, ma con brio unusually fast.  It’s bold, but I’m not convinced, but even if Brahms himself added those animatos to the first edition, what does it say that they weren’t part of the original design of the piece. The tempo relationships have always seemed like the key to understanding that piece- wave after wave of speeding up in each section of the movement, culminating in the build up to the final  Piu Allegro. Maybe not, though?

Mahler or Beethoven would never have left us with such questions, but Brahms was actually resistant to handing us easy answers. He refused many requests to clarify his wishes from coleagues, friends and publishers- instead, a bit like Shostakovich, he seems to have felt that if someone lacks a feel for the music, a few extra tempo markings won’t fix the problem. I had always treated tempo intensification as the key to understanding the form of the Finale of Brahms 1. Now, I’ve found something that is forcing me to rethink that. So far, all my research has been able to establish is that the question is not going to be easy to answer. The answer may be the same this time around, but the cost of reaching it gets higher each time.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at

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3 comments on “Brahms 1- first thoughts on re-opening a favorite score”

  1. Steve Hicken

    Nice post on a favorite of mine, too.

    I was taking a class on Brahms’ symphonies and late piano works at the University of Iowa. James Dixon was the conductor of the University Symphony at the time. He was known for his Mahler and for his performances of contemporary music, but when he spoke to the class he cited Brahms as one of the most challenging composers he had ever conducted, and cited issues similar to what you discuss here.

    Keep up the good work, and keep posting about specific pieces!

  2. Daniel E. Friedman

    Thanks for your article about one of my favorite composers. Having has my works performed quite frequently, I have noticed how Brahms’ pieces that have been programmed along-side mine get a huge amount of rehearsal time. His music is rhythmically difficult to perform, and yet so rewarding to an audience when played well.

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