Zygotic gene expression programs control cell differentiation in vertebrate development. In Xenopus, these programs are initiated by local induction of regulatory genes through maternal signaling activities in the wake of zygotic genome activation (ZGA) at the midblastula transition (MBT). These programs lay down the vertebrate body plan through gastrulation and neurulation, and are accompanied by massive changes in chromatin structure, which increasingly constrain cellular plasticity. Here we report on developmental functions for Brahma related gene 1 (Brg1), a key component of embyronic SWI/SNF chromatin remodeling complexes. Carefully controlled, global Brg1 protein depletion in X. tropicalis and X. laevis causes embryonic lethality or developmental arrest from gastrulation on. Transcriptome analysis at late blastula, before development becomes arrested, indicates predominantly a role for Brg1 in transcriptional activation of a limited set of genes involved in pattern specification processes and nervous system development. Mosaic analysis by targeted microinjection defines Brg1 as an essential amplifier of gene expression in dorsal (BCNE/Nieuwkoop Center) and ventral (BMP/Vent) signaling centers. Moreover, Brg1 is required and sufficient for initiating axial patterning in cooperation with maternal Wnt signaling. In search for a common denominator of Brg1 impact on development, we have quantitatively filtered global mRNA fluctuations at MBT. The results indicate that Brg1 is predominantly required for genes with the highest burst of transcriptional activity. Since this group contains many key developmental regulators, we propose Brg1 to be responsible for raising their expression above threshold levels in preparation for embryonic patterning.