Brahms and list

Posted by

I am naturally competitive. Desperate to win. (The few people doubting the veracity of this statement should have been in the room during a no-holds-barred game of Racing Demon this afternoon – if footage of it were ever to hit the internet, I’d be done for).

Luckily this primal competitive urge is counterbalanced by an instinctive desire to be thought of as a good chap, so I’m able, most of the time, to keep the worst excesses of my competitive nature under wraps. But this veneer of civilised behaviour is graphene thin – scratch it and the raging monster beneath would be exposed.

But despite this, I’ve never been impressed by the competitive in Art. It strikes me as rather defeating the point. In utopia there is no competition in Art. It all exists equally, valid in and of itself, without comparison to anything else.

And yet we know this is not true. Wherever you look in the creative world there’s competition: for jobs, publishing deals, audiences, market share. And then there are music competitions, book prizes, art awards etc and so on for ever.

So, much as I might hanker for a world in which we can just put our stuff out there and let it just exist, I know this will never happen.

These thoughts occurred to me last night after I’d conducted my nth performance of Brahms’s First Symphony. It’s a masterpiece, of course. So are his other three. And each time I conduct one of them, I find myself thinking that it’s my favourite of the four. Until, that is, the next time I conduct one of the others, when the scales fall from my eyes and I realise how wrong I was – this is the one, the pinnacle. Until, that is, I conduct…

And so on.

Why do I find myself comparing them? It’s pointless and subjective. Each is, in its own way, a masterpiece, and each has its own character. The Brahms devotee might find themselves in a First Symphony kind of mood one day, all thunderclouds and sunlight and lyricism, but the following day might feel more inclined towards the comparative lightness and benevolence of the Second Symphony. It doesn’t make one better than the other, just more suitable for the particular mood at a particular time.

But such an even-handed and open appraisal neglects one important aspect of the human psyche: judging things is fun, harmless, and often helps pass an idle few minutes on a rainy afternoon. It’s what leads to websites rating all the episodes of your favourite TV programmes.

So, for the record, my current evaluation of them follows below. It is subject to a few caveats:

  • It’s only a bit of fun
  • Even the ‘worst’ Brahms symphony stands head and shoulders above anything most people achieve
  • Other opinions are available
  • But they are wrong
  • I will probably change my mind tomorrow (I have in fact, during the writing of this piece, changed the order at least ten times, but there is one thing that remains constant, and that is the symphony that resides in first place)

So, The Brahms Symphonies, In Their Rightful Order, No Arguing, Just Accept That I Am Right On This One


(You may add your wrong opinions below)


  1. I can’t help thinking that judging the various attributes of Brahms’ 4 symphonies is as pointless as it would be if we asked Brahms to judge you and me playing a few hands of racing demon ( I’m fast by the way and competitative. ..and modest)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.