The nuts and bolts of Brahms 1- Allegro

Part II of my look at the ins and outs of conducting Brahms 1. Part I is here.

You can follow along on a pdf of the score here.


There are whole books written about tempo relationships in Brahms. Many conductors drive themselves to drink trying to make the 8th of the Introduction work as the dotted quarter of the Allegro. At the end of the day, I think a direct relationship is less meaningful than one that allows for some mixture continuity and contrast. Beethoven’s metronome markings bear this out- within a movement, he avoids exact relationships, favoring “a little slower/faster than the previous section” markings instead. I take the dotted crotchet of the Allegro slightly, slightly slower than the 8th note of the Un poco sostenuto.

(My Un poco sostenuto seems to settle somewhere around 88-92 bpm, the Allegro about 80-84).

Again, I want to find a tempo that works for the whole movement (not that I don’t push and pull around when the music seems to call for it).  Today, it seems trendy to treat this movement like Beethoven and drive through at breakneck speed. The effect at the top of the Allegro might be exciting, but the 16th notes throughout struggle to have any melodic intensity in them at a Beethovenian, driving tempo. A good orchestra can play the 16ths at bar 329 as fast as anything, but it doesn’t mean they should- too fast, and I think it sounds rather jejune, more frantic than dramatic. Brahms was his own man- Beethoven’s sometimes frenetic and driven nature was alien to him.

Balance is a huge problem/challenge in the Allegro. The opening of the whole symphony is kind of a declaration of compositional intent- there are 3 distinct, equally important motives going on at the same time: the thirds in the woodwinds and violas, the chromatic theme in the violins and cellos and the repeated pitches in the timp, basses and contra. In this instance, the 3 ideas are perfectly balanced as a matter of orchestration- one need only stand there and look cool, and the audience should hear all they need to.

However, Brahms starts as he means to continue, so for much of the movement, there are 3 themes going on in most bars, each important (but not equally important).  Look at bar 42- the sweeping theme in the first violins is a variation of the thirds in the woodwinds in bar 1, the cellos and bassoons are playing the violin/cello theme from the beginning and the violas and 2nds are taking on the role of the timpani. The sweeping theme  in bar 42 will be heard (although one rarely hears the cresc in the next bar), but the cello/bassoon rising chromatic motive often sounds more like a bass line than a theme, and the repeated 8th notes in the 2nds and violas often just sound like an anonymous accompaniment,  when one can hear them at all. I’d say half the bars in the movement have similar little balance traps.

Another consistent issue throughout the movement is the length of notes before rests. Brahms often ends a gesture with a quarter note followed by an 8th rest: see the first violins on the downbeat of 44,  or flute and oboe on the downbeat of 48. Too often, these just sound like a generic short note, rather than something with some real melodic tension that releases into silence at a more specific time. Next time you hear Brahms 1, compare the length of the first violin downbeat in bar 44 with the cello and bassoon downbeat (marked as an 8th with a staccato dot) in the next bar. Too often, they’re the same. Likewise, the downbeats of bar51 (staccato 8th) and bar 52 (quarter followed by 8th rest).

These diminished chords in the strings in bars 51-3 are tough for tuning, and also for bowing. Played with two down bows, they can sound too aggressive and lose a sense of connection to bar 9 when we first hear the idea, and the silence between B and F can be too large (the B often sounds staccato). Played with separate bows, the 2nd pair of notes often sounds weaker and the silence between the B and F can be sloppy. I do use two down bows (at least I did this week), but try to get the players to sing the note before the rest.

The gesture in 53-5 in the violins and upper woodwinds comes from bar 11. Giving the 8th note enough weight and schwung in a moderate tempo is not easy- too often, it turns into something  more like a dotted rhythm, with the 8th too late and too fast. This makes a real problem when, at the climax of this section, Brahms brings back the repeated pitch motive in the 2nd violins (middle of bar 63). If one is lucky enough to be able to hear the 2nds, it makes painfully obvious the fudged rhythm in the horns, firsts and violas.

At letter B (an interesting variation of  the  phrase starting in bar 42), Brahms makes a little canonic gesture of the repeated 8th notes in this order: timp, vla, 2nd vn, 1st vn. Then in bar 73, there is another little pseudo-canonic debate of repeated 8th notes between violins and violas. Given that there are likely to be about 3 times as many violinists playing the gesture as violas answering them, the problem for balance is obvious. You can hopefully see that the cello/bass theme at B is an inversion and an extension of the cello/bassoon theme at 42. All the more reason that the first statement at 42 needs to sound thematic and melodic. Notice how the whole block of material is extended into an 8 bar unit this time, as opposed to a 4 bar unit at 42. Likewise, the 5 bar unit at  bar 46 is extended at 78 to 10 bars. I think it is so cool how Brahms expands the idea.  Again, it’s often hard to hear all 3 parts- yes, we probably hear the sweeping string theme clearly, but are less aware of the inversion/extension of the chromatic theme in the woodwinds, and the really interesting variation of the opening timp motive in the timp, horns and trumpets.

I’m not sure why- it is not only a problem when I conduct it, but from bar 88 everything seems to go along great until the pickup to letter  C and the downbeat, which are often a train-wreck. Maybe the first violins are so worried about finding their high c-flat sf, that they lose their concentration on the downbeat? At C, I, like many conductors use a “backwards” bowing, starting from the sf: down-up, down-up, so that the sf a the accent in the 3rd bar of C is downbow. Unlike a normal shoe-shine bowing, which is the same pattern but on the string and usually in the upper half, this should be played with a nasty, brusque and vertical stroke right at the frong. In the 4th bar, I adjust the bowing- up, down-up (as before) then another up, and after that a normal hooked bowing, staying more on the string, and lengthening the stroke a bit in 103. One player last week suggeseted at this point scratching out the dots. This is un-necessary (and not what I intend!). C is not dots, but wedges, the dots are already longer, then the portato even longer. Of course, melodic pizz’s are always hard to hear, the 1st vns in 105- need to play up. Yes, I do do a fair bit of rubato around 102-3 and 109-10. Some puritans think this is self-indulgent, but in this instance, I feel that charging ahead remorselessly is another example of “point making” conducting, but it’s all a question of degree and execution. The music in these bars is harmonically and rhetorically at a point of uncertainty and hesitancy- I, like many others, just let that question-mark hang in the air  a second, as questions should.

There are miracles of variation in the music that follows. Listen to the way he varies the repeated 8th note motive from the quite basic cello version at 105 and 113, to the oscillating slurs in 117 in cello and 1st vns (it’s lovely if you can create  some sense of the cello’s letting the 8ths in 116 morph into the slurred 8ths of 117.) Then the 2nds and violas vary the slurred 8ths a little more at D, and finally, at 130, the violas play them portato, another new treatment (and one that is always hard to hear). I’m not advocating tons of rehearsing of just the 8th notes. Instead, if you conduct it in a somewhat enlightened state of listening, I think the players will find a thread through all the transformations.

Just as letter B was a variation of bar 42 (itself a variation of the beginning), letter D is a new variation/transformation of the same material.  It’s inspiring to compare the different versions. I do expand the tempo a little bit ad D- the dolce and espressivo seem to beg for it (one conductor I knew said the William Primose told him that his (Primrose’s) teacher, who knew Brahms, said Brahms told him that dolce implied slower. For what it’s worth….).

We’ve heard the 3 chromatic notes from the beginning in some interesting guises, including inverted at B. Notice how he starts to play with the two versions from 125: falling in the cello/bass  B-flt/A/A-flat then rising immediately G/A-flat/A the next two bars.  The big oboe tune is another variation of the chromatic theme- note the downbeats of bars 131-3: A/A-flat/G, then 135 D-flat/C/C-flat. He’s using the 3 note cell as a cantus firmus and elaborating it into a long theme. Only Brahms could transform such an unpromising skeleton into such a beautiful tune, and notice how at the end of the passage, the first violins answer the oboe’s descending version of the theme with the rising version A/B-flat/C-flat starting in 145.

Finally, at letter E, there seem to be two big questions to answer. Essentially, this passage has two apparently equally important melodic ideas, one in the violins (notice how the three dotted quarter notes in the theme ascend by half step, A/B-flat/C-flat,  just as oboe theme at bar 131 built a long theme from the descending version of the 3 note chromatic motive that opens the symphony, here at letter E, Brahms builds a long theme around the skeleton the ascending version of the same motive), one in vla/cello/bass and bassoons. 8 bars later, the players switch parts. What is the main voice, or in other words, who does the conductor point at, the theme initially in the violins, or the other one (some conductors make it easy for themselves and only ever look at the first violins. We cellists get tired of looking at their bottoms for entire symphonies). I have a simple solution- since I take the repeat (everybody should- he wrote it!), I can emphasize one theme the first time and the other the 2nd time.

There is also a question to be answered about articulation at E. Note that in the violins, all the 8ths have dots, in the other theme, none of them. In 169, when the themes are swapped, the same is true- viola, cello, bass and bassoons have dots, violins and upper winds don’t.

My take is that the articulation should be audibly different (not everyone seems to agree or to have noticed the difference. Different strokes). Hence- at E, violins play off the string at the frog (heel for my UK readers), all separate bows (up-down-up-downnnnn), and the lower strings stay on the string with a hooked bowing, more in the middle of the bow. 8 bars later, all swap.

Finally, there is the curious question of the “Agitato” marking in the violins and violas at bar 177. Are we really supposed to speed up here? Some famous chaps do, but I don’t think it sounds very organic, and if you do take the repeat (as you should), how do you get back to the main tempo? To me, the Agitato is a character marking, not a tempo marking.

Phew- that gets us to the end of the exposition (don’t for get to play it twice, as the dead genius requested). In spite of my determination not go into detail or to get too technical, this is pretty long. Rather than boring you further, let’s take a break. Maybe I can find the energy to touch on the remaining points of interest in this great movement later.


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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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