The nuts and bolts of Brahms 1: Un poco sostenuto

Vftp readers will know that Brahms’ First Symphony has been much on my mind the last few weeks.  With our final performance behind us, now, I thought it might be fun to just go through the piece on a very simple, nuts and bolts level and explain some of my current thinking about the piece. Maybe next time I conduct it, I can write a new version of the same post, and see how my realization has changed. You can follow along on a pdf of the score here.

The opening nearly plays itself (which is to say the musicians will play it best of you let them play and don’t interfere too much), but there is one extremely thorny question: tempo (Brahms’ marks “Un poco sostenuto”. We live in an age of revisionist and contrarian interpretation. It is so easy to hear when a conductor has decided to offer a “corrective” to all those openings of Brahms 1 that are, in the conductor’s opinion, played too slow- they instead conduct it too fast. Of course, the reverse applies too- disgusted at the keystone cops versions one sometimes hear, some conductors conduct the first 8 bars at a glacial pace. Either version is what I call “point making” conducting. Chances are that if you are struck by the tempo of the opening, even if you think it sounds cool, the conductor has probably made a mistake of judgement.

I find both approaches troubling because it calls attention to the opinion and taste of the conductor, rather than letting the music speak for itself. In the course of the rest of the introduction, these extreme readings tend to fail in one of two ways in the melodic passages two bars before A and from bar 29 to the Allegro. These long lines of slurred eighth notes seem to work within a much narrower range of tempos than the opening does. Most of the contrarians and revisionists tend to let the tempo moderate or settle here, so that the melody doesn’t sound absurd, but this makes clear the danger of trying to make a point with the opening tempo. Those that don’t moderate the tempo tend to collapse under their own weight.

The passage starting at bar 9 is full of little traps. For me, it is important (and very interesting) to hear the pizzicati as a continuation of the timpani. I want them to have the same inexorable tread and to sound quite dark and heavy, and not too soft. Then in bar 11, the pizzicato pass the repeated eighth-notes on to the cellos and basses.  The timpani statement at the opening is so iconic (and such a part of how the whole symphony is going to be put together. It’s a good exercise to see how that motive continues through the whole introduction: bar 9-pizz, barr 11-cello/bass, bar 13-pizz, bar  15- cello/bass. Even where the repeated pitches disappear (bars 19-20 and 29-37), someone is playing an eighth note on every beat of every bar except 23-4 when he doubles the speed, and the last 2 bars.

That said, I don’t conduct the introduction metronomically: I try think about where someone singing this music would need to breathe, and to allow that to happen. It also makes the phrase structure a little more perceptible to the audience, I think. I often allow a little bit of breathing room after down beats at the ends of sub-phrases.

The one passage that is always a problem for rhythm and ensemble is bar 19 and 20. Don’t ask me why. Okay, ask me why. It’s two bars of slurred eighth notes  scored for solo flute, solo bassoon and first violin in octaves. Almost without fail, someone starts rushing here, and the 3 parts start to come apart. It may sound pedantic when the rhythm appears so simple, but the solution is for everyone to really subdivide. Otherwise, slurred repetitions of the same note value in moderate tempos always tend to rush (the opening of Debussy’s Nuages is always a pain for the same reason). In the end, this passage always exposes who is completely focused and in the music, and who is letting their attention and intensity wander.

So, for me, the key to the introduction is to find a real Goldilocks-and-the-three-Bears tempo- not too fast, not too slow, but just right. If I sing the opening, the music at bar 9, bar 11 and bar 29, I find that the range of possible tempos in which all these bits make sense is pretty small.

Some day, I’ll conduct or hear a Brahms 1 where I can hear the double basses in bar 25 (I’ve known people to add a 2nd timpanist to double the basses, but I  just want some freaky loud bass players). Likewise, I hope someday to find a 3rd and 4th horn really willing to rip into their entrance with passionate intensity in bar 8- on most recordings, it’s barely there.

On to the Allegro!


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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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5 comments on “The nuts and bolts of Brahms 1: Un poco sostenuto”

  1. Evan Tucker

    I completely agree with you about the tempo issues here. Gunther Schuller suggested 92 to the quarter, which strikes me as perfect (even if his insistence on a metric relationship between the introduction and the main section is kind of ludicrous). I have to take issue though with the thought that it plays itself. You have to balance three different groups of instruments perfectly so that the audience feels the widening distance between the ascending strings, the descending winds and undertow with which the bass instruments on pedal point hold it all together (without the timpani obscuring everything else). It is a passage that could only have been written by a genius, and extremely difficult to get right. I think Karajan gets it just about right here, even though the sound is probably too massive:

  2. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Evan

    I suppose I’m being very slightly facetious about the opening playing itself. I certainly agree only a genius could have written it. It’s surely one of the 10 best openings of any symphony in history.

    However, I’m sticking to my guns in one sense. Obviously, as a conductor, you need to know exactly how the three parts fit together and help the strings in particular know when to move. But, where most performances get into trouble is when the conductor get’s so excited by one part that it blows the others off the stage. Either he/she eggs on the timpanist until everyone is obliterated, or focuses on the string tune to the exclusion of the wind/viola line. The balance should just kind of work if everyone is playing forte.

    If the balance isn’t working, then probably the best thing (not always possible) is to think about whether you have the right number of players on stage. Karajan always doubled the winds in Brahms, which makes perfect sense with the huge string section he used in Berlin. Nowadays, doubling has come to be viewed as politically incorrect (and orchestra managers don’t want to pay for it), but it goes all the way back to Haydn and Beethoven’s performances of their own works. Likewise, with a smaller string section, it may be worth having a look at what kind of drums your timpanist is using.

    What you don’t want is something that has been balanced by adjusting the dynamics to the point that some people are producing a mezzo piano quality, some are producing a fortissimo quality and some are forte all to give the appropriate number of decibels. So, if you’ve got the right band on stage, it should just… play itself.

  3. Erik K

    “Likewise, I hope someday to find a 3rd and 4th horn really willing to rip into their entrance with passionate intensity in bar 8- on most recordings, it’s barely there.”

    I await your phone call.

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