Brahms – Symphony No. 1

If I had to pick a favorite symphony—and that would be difficult to do as I love so many—then it would have to be Symphony No. 1 by Johannes Brahms.  Though he completed it in 1876 at the age of 43, he had been working on it for something like 21 years.  He was a consummate perfectionist, and it shows.

The Madison Symphony Orchestra performed this extraordinary work this past weekend as the second half of a really fine program featuring Alban Gerhardt  playing the Walton Cello Concerto, and Rossini’s Overture to Semiramide.  We are so very fortunate to have an orchestra of this caliber in southern Wisconsin, and music director John DeMain is a treasure.  I am a season subscriber, of course, and attend all the concerts except for the Christmas program in December.

Johannes Brahms in 1876

I cannot get through a performance of the Brahms First Symphony without being moved to tears, and Sunday’s excellent performance by the MSO was no exception.  The final section of the second movement (Andante sostenuto) features an incredibly beautiful violin solo, gorgeously played by concertmaster Naha Greenholtz.  The fourth and final movement (Adagio — Più andante — Allegro non troppo, ma con brio — Più allegro) is pure ecstasy.  Just when you think the symphony is drawing to a conclusion, it launches into another, even more remarkable, section.  And that happens more than once.  The modulating transition to the coda in measures 367-390 (about 15:42 to 16:24 into the movement, two minutes before the end) for me is one of the most exciting sections of the entire work.

I once asked my friend and accomplished horn player John Wunderlin—who is similarly deeply moved by orchestral music—how he keeps from choking up during the most moving passages he plays.  “Fear of messing up” he said, half jokingly and half serious.  Part of the discipline that any professional musician must have is maintaining composure  during even the most moving and beautiful sections.  I don’t think I could do it.  But I did once see a teary-eyed violinist in the orchestra at the conclusion of a work.  Want to know what that work was?  It was the Symphony No. 1 by Johannes Brahms.

Einstein, Brahms, and Exoplanets

What do Albert Einstein, Johannes Brahms, and exoplanets have in common?  They are all great courses provided by The Great Courses.

Call me old fashioned, but I love a great lecture presented by an expert in the field.  What a wonderful way to get introduced to a new subject, or refamiliarize yourself with an old subject, or deepen your knowledge about a subject with which you are already familiar.

I recently finished watching the magnificent course “Albert Einstein: Physicist, Philosopher, Humanitarian” by Don Howard, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, former Director of Notre Dame’s Graduate Program in History and Philosophy of Science, and a Fellow of the University of Notre Dame’s Reilly Center for Science, Technology, and Values.

I have taken an interest in Einstein since I first encountered relativity in my early teens, and of course being a physics major in college I became much more familiar with Einstein’s remarkable scientific contributions.  But this course surprised and delighted me with many details about Einstein himself.  Howard obviously has a much deeper understanding of Einstein the person than most physicists do, and his enthusiasm for his subject comes through in every lecture.  I doubt you will find a more thorough treatment of Einstein anywhere short of reading a biography.  Recommended!

As luck would have it, while I was nearing the end of this course, Time came out with an updated reissue of its special edition, “Albert Einstein: The Enduring Legacy of a Modern Genius”.  Great photographs, great text.  Well worth every penny!


Robert Greenberg is music historian-in-residence with San Francisco Performances and has produced a lot of high-quality music courses for The Great Courses.  I am in the process of watching all of them (yes, really, they’re that good!).  Recently, I finished his course on Johannes Brahms, who is probably my all-time favorite composer.

The music of Brahms is well known by many, but how much do you know about Johannes Brahms the person, and the events of his life?  This course is the perfect introduction to those subjects, as well as his extraordinary compositions.

It is amazing to me that no one has yet made a feature-length film about the life of Johannes Brahms (1833-1897).  A historically accurate dramatic portrayal could easily become one of the most significant musical film biographies ever made.  Brahms was one of the greatest composers who ever lived, and he had an interesting life—there is much material to draw upon for the making of this movie.  Greenberg’s course is a great place to begin, and I would also recommend the definitive biography, “Brahms: His Life and Work” by Karl Geiringer.


You’ve just got to love The Great Courses.  This is what television could have been.  PBS is the only thing that even comes close.  I recently completed “The Search for Exoplanets: What Astronomers Know” presented by Joshua Winn, now Professor of Astrophysical Sciences at Princeton University.  Not since Carl Sagan or Neil deGrasse Tyson have I been this excited about an astronomy presenter.  Josh Winn presents his exoplanets course with enthusiasm, precision, and a delivery that really draws you in to the subject.  I hope we see much more of him in the future.