A Quick Guide To The Four Brahms Symphonies

Written by Izaak Walton
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Johannes Brahms was a German composer, conductor, and pianist who championed traditional, classical forms combined with Romantic innovations. Considered by many to be a successor to Beethoven’s compositional legacy, Brahms often fought with expectations and fell into bouts of obstructive perfectionism.

Well respected in musical circles, Brahms was friends with many of his musical contemporaries, including Joseph Joachim, Robert and Clara Schumann, and Johann Strauss II. However, Richard Wagner, and his supporters, maintained a musical rivalry with Brahms for Beethoven’s inheritance.

In these four symphonies, listeners can find drama, sensitivity, and perfectly organized composition, along with beautiful examples of creative genius audiences have come to expect of Brahms.

Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Opus 68

Herbert von Karajan – ‘Brahm’s Symphony 1’

Brahms was a perfectionist with his compositions and his first Symphony is no exception.

The piece took between 14 and 20 years to write and was premiered in 1876. Eager to be seen as Beethoven’s successor, he wanted to make sure his work would be a success.

I. Un poco sostenuto – Allegro

The first movement begins with a prolonged introduction, Brahms’ only symphony to use a formal introduction.

The opening Un poco sostenuto uses syncopated rhythms to create unrest and introduces themes used in the rest of the piece.

The Allegro begins with a clash, and continues energetically as each theme is explored and developed, inspired by the four-note “Fate” motif from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

II. Andante sostenuto

This intimate movement uses a ternary form, exploring tranquil and gentle moods primarily with the woodwinds and strings.

III. Un poco allegretto e grazioso

Consisting of two parts, a 2/4 Allegretto and a 6/8 trio, this movement follows a ternary form and employs lush strings, pizzicato passages, and peacefully active woodwinds.

IV. Adagio – Più andante – Allegro non troppo, ma con brio – Più allegro

Similarly to the first movement, the finale of the symphony also begins with a lengthy, subdued introduction, Adagio.

The second section, Più andante, introduces the Alphorn theme in the brass section, before carrying it through the rest of the orchestra.

The main section of the movement, Allegro non troppo, ma con brio consists of a typical sonata form, exploring a theme comparable to the “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

The piece ends with a series of plagal cadences, providing a resounding, ecclesiastic resolution to the work.

Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Opus 73

Herbert von Karajan – ‘Brahm’s Symphony 2’

In contrast to the decades of work leading to the First Symphony, Brahms spent only the summer of 1877 composing his second symphony.

The work follows a traditional classical symphonic structure, featuring two fast outer movements with slow and dance movements inside.

I. Allegro non troppo

The first movement begins in the cellos and basses, introducing the first theme tranquilly.

The movement also features a second theme reminiscent of Brahms’ own Wiegenlied (Lullaby).

II. Adagio non troppo

A peaceful and somber movement, the Adagio explores two main themes with ongoing variations throughout.

III. Allegretto Grazioso

This movement is a light and effervescent minuet, built with pizzicato in the strings and dancing melodies in the winds.

IV. Allegro Con Spirito

The final movement of the symphony begins quietly and in earnest before erupting into a glorious Allegro with spirit.

Symphony No. 3 in F Major, Opus 90

Seiji Ozawa conducting the Saito Kinen Orchestra – ‘Brahm’s Symphony 3’

This symphony, written in the summer of 1883, emerged after the completion of some of Brahms’ most respected works, including the Tragic Overture, Academic Festival Overture, Second Piano Concerto, and Violin Concerto.

The symphony is built upon Brahms’ personal motto, Frei aber froh (Free but happy), musicalized into the three note motif F-Ab-F.

On a musical/political note, the premiere was protested by Wagnerian fans who sought to undermine Brahms’ status as Beethoven’s heir.

I. Allegro con Brio

The opening three chords center on the F-Ab-F motif, the second F leading into an exhilarating opening which transitions into a gentle, dance-like autumn scene.

The development carries the audience through cascades of yearning tension before resolving into calmness.

II. Andante

The second movement begins with a folk-inspired melody, trading the material back and forth between the strings and the winds.

This call and response pattern becomes increasingly intricate until the two voices nearly collide before despondently returning to the opening material.

III. Poco Allegretto

One of the most memorable movements in the orchestral repertoire, this breathtaking display of lush strings and soaring melodies sweeps the audience off their seats.

IV. Allegro – Un poco sostenuto

Beginning tentatively in the strings, the finale of the symphony brings back material from the other three movements in cataclysmic fashion.

Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Opus 98

Yoel Levi Conducting the KBS Symphony Orchestra – ‘Brahm’s Symphony 4’

Brahms’ last symphony, the fourth symphony’s composition was completed in 1885 while the composer traveled through Northern Austria.

I. Allegro non troppo

The first movement follows a traditional sonata form with an immense and innovative development. The movement begins with a soaring theme in the strings, slowly building to stately and structured majesty.

II. Andante moderato

The second movement begins with a solo horn introducing a somber processional theme, a theme which becomes transformed into a lush landscape.

III. Allegro giocoso

The closest thing to a scherzo in Brahms’ symphonies, this movement implements a reduced sonata form and misses the typical trio section.

The movement begins dramatically with a nearly unison passage comprising the strings, brass, woodwinds, and percussion all into one grand tumult.

IV. Allegro energetico e passionato

Following his traditionalist tendencies, Brahms bases the fourth movement off of a passacaglia, a baroque technique which consists of eight chords repeated throughout the movement with variations.

Hello Music Theory’s Picks

Brahms’ symphonies have become standards in the orchestral repertoire, a process that began in the composer’s lifetime by orchestras in both Europe and North America.

Today, virtually every orchestra has programmed a Brahms symphony to showcase their symphonic capabilities, and many have recorded all four.

Below, we’ve put together a selection of notable recordings, in no particular order:

Bruno Walter, Columbia Symphony Orchestra

A gleaming example of mid-century American recording orchestras, Bruno Walter’s 1959 recording with Columbia Records’ house orchestra is a stunning presentation of the Brahms Symphonies.

Daniel Barenboim, Staatskapelle Berlin

A beautifully engineered recording of the full cycle, Barenboim’s presentation provides both a modern touch and traditional sensibilities. 

Sir Georg Solti, Chicago Symphony Orchestra

One of the first international orchestras to adopt Brahms’ work as canon during the composer’s lifetime, the Chicago Symphony’s set is dramatic and full-forced, leaving the audience awe-inspired.


Thank you for reading through this guide to the Brahms Symphonies, we hope this opens up a journey of exploration for you, and leads you to listen to not only his symphonies but his immense opus of other works.

The four Brahms symphonies are masterpieces of compositional excellence, each adhering to Brahms’ strict musical standards.

The works mix traditional forms, lush, romantic textures, and the composer’s emotional sensitivity into resplendent pieces of contrapuntal art.

Listen to these symphonies and take a peek at Brahms’ melancholies, joys, and strengths, and witness symphony writing at its most flawless.

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Izaak Walton is a violinist and violin teacher based out of Denver, Colorado. Izaak received a Master’s in Violin Performance at the University of Denver, and a Bachelor’s in Violin Performance from the University of Georgia. Exposed to a variety of violin methods and musical styles, Izaak built passions for music history, literature, and violin technique.