The Kennedy Center

Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98

About the Work

National Symphony Orchesra Composer Portraits - Johannes Brahms Composer: Johannes Brahms
© Thomas May

"That was some fellow! How miserable we are by comparison!" Johannes Brahms famously idolized Beethoven, but his longing for a connection with the tradition of his predecessors extended to other major figures, including Joseph Haydn, of whom he made this declaration. It's no coincidence that Brahms wrote the orchestral version of his Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn, Op. 56a, as a kind of trial run for the high-pressure work of plunging into his long-gestating First Symphony. Even if the theme itself (known as "St. Anthony's Chorale") was later discovered to have been attributed to Haydn by mistake, Brahms evidently believed in the link: the act of building something vital and new on the relic of such a key figure, as far as he was concerned, must have had a powerful symbolic significance as well. 

      And there's a neat symmetry in the fact that Brahms's symphonic legacy concludes with a movement of variations. (It's also the last music of his that he heard performed in public.) The Fourth Symphony represents a summa, a harvesting of all the wisdom Brahms had cultivated throughout his career with regard to the ideal of the symphony - not only as the leading contemporary champion of a genre regarded by many influential figures as passé but as a musical thinker deeply self-conscious of the lineage leading up to him. However angst-ridden Brahms became about the value of his own era in comparison with a prior golden age, what he achieved in the Symphony in E minor is a musical edifice of unwaveringly masterful craftsmanship, resulting in music that has a palpable durability and robustness.

      At the same time, the Fourth Symphony posed challenges for its initial audience, even for the composer's steadfast allies and supporters. Brahms was well aware of the problems of "accessibility" such a subtle, multilayered composition would entail. To Hans von Bülow, an especially important champion - he coined the alliterative trio "Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms" - the composer wrote with typical dry humor of the freshly completely score: "I have a few entr'actes - which are customarily together referred to as a symphony." He wondered though whether it would have much appeal for an audience: "I'm really afraid that it tastes like the climate here. The cherries don't ripen in these parts; you wouldn't eat them!"

      Brahms was referring to the resort town of Mürzzuschlag near the Semmering Pass southwest of Vienna, where he'd composed the Fourth over the summers of 1884 and 1885. Note the contrasting echo with another famous landscape metaphor Brahms had used in regard to his creative work on the Second Symphony in the late 1870s: "So many melodies [are] flying about here that you need to take care not to step on them!" That was in reference to the idyllic alpine setting of the Wörthersee, further to the south in Austria's Carinthia region - the same area that lured Mahler and Alban Berg when they were in composing mode. 

      And when Brahms introduced the new music of the Fourth by way of a play-through in a two-piano arrangement back home in Vienna to a close circle of friends, there was puzzlement. The hard-to-please, powerful critic Eduard Hanslick (serving as a page turner) reportedly broke the awkward silence that greeted the end of the first movement, erupting with a joke to ease the tension: "For the whole movement I had the feeling that I was being given a beating by two incredibly intelligent people!" Hanslick was one of Brahms's most significant supporters. 

      The premiere at Meiningen in central Germany - the composer himself conducted - turned out to be a success. Yet, notes the Brahms scholar Walter Frisch, "the fact remains that the Fourth is not a work that unlocks its secrets easily; it is not a work, like the Second, whose sensuous beauty beckons listeners inside. In his last symphony, Brahms seems to be writing precisely for the kind of cultivated, musically literate listener whose disappearance at the end of the nineteenth century he sorely regretted." 

      The composer's cautionary metaphor of the unripened cherries is remarkably fitting. For all of its impassioned intensity, the Fourth seems - with the exception of the inner movements - to speak a language grounded in unrelenting tragedy. There is no sweetener to palliate the harsh truth with which it concludes. Even the joyful respites in this score strike us more as a surprise than as relief. 

      Characteristically Brahmsian is the sense of organic connection and relatedness of parts to each other and to the whole, of musical cells and seeds that proliferate and grow into more complex structures. It's not necessary to be consciously - "musicologically" - aware of these connections to sense them in the experience of hearing. The effect can still be felt, much as Shakespeare's metaphorical language in, say, King Lear, makes us sensitive to the process of stripping away and denuding, no matter how closely we pay attention to his variations on vocabulary of suggesting "nothing." 

      Of course musicologists have had a field day teasing these elements out, pointing, for example, to the predominant role of the interval of the descending third (the interval formed by the first two notes of the opening theme) and its reversal. But notice, too, the gesture of a kind of passionate "breathing" as this theme is articulated, right at the outset, with no preliminary curtain raising. (Brahms discarded a sketch for a brief intro.) This sense of ebb and flow also contributes substantially to the emotional language of the Fourth, creating a sense of inevitable pattern that hints at the fatalism of ancient tragedy. 

      The first movement is a paradigm of the continual, restless development of musical ideas that led Arnold Schoenberg to rethink the allegedly "conservative" Brahms as a progressive. In Schoenberg's view, Brahms formulated a technique of "developing variation" that served as a lighthouse for musical modernism. An especially compelling example can be heard in the alterations of his material through which Brahms prepares for the recapitulation, eliciting a remarkable atmosphere of mystery. By the end of the movement, the tragic implications hinted at the opening have accumulated to produce an overwhelming effect.

      The tonality brightens into E major for the Andante, but Brahms gives it an ambiguous twist. His skill as an orchestrator is wonderfully evident in the impression of sonic chiaroscuro he creates through varied timbres. Along with Brahms the "conservative," Brahms the "intellectual" is an image that needs to be modified to take account of his appreciation of the sensual reality of sound color.

      In terms of sound color, the Allegro giocoso, with its piccolo and triangle (the only times Brahms employs these instruments in the Fourth), arrives as something of a shock. Set in a bright C major, this third movement has the energy and boisterous dynamic contrast of a scherzo (though not the triple meter associated with the classic Beethoven scherzo). More subtly, Frisch argues that the manipulation of the thematic idea here foreshadows the outline of the theme that takes center stage in the finale.

      Brahms caps the Fourth with an unexpected turn to a venerable musical form from the musical past: the pre-Classical past, at that, since the form in question is the Baroque passacaglia (used more or less interchangeably with the term "chaconne"). This is a theme-and-variations concept based on an easily identifiable thematic idea - in triple meter and eight measures long here - which is traditionally first presented in the bass and serves as a recurring anchor while other ideas are elaborated around it. Brahms uses a theme of eight laconic but impactful chords. 

      Much of the drama of the finale is generated by a clash between the cyclical repetitions of the passacaglia idea and the forward momentum of Classical sonata form. Brahms combines the predictability of these repetitions with the drive of sonata-based contrast developed across a total of 30 variations. In other words, the finale conveys a sense of exposition, development, and recapitulation (when the full orchestra reprises the theme in the climactic 24th Variation), followed by a dramatic coda. The finale can even be parsed as a condensed four-movement symphony according to the distribution of variations into smaller groupings, with a "slow movement" of woodwind-heavy variations at the center, for example.

      By marrying these diverse elements of the musical past, Brahms created his final symphonic testament, in turn bequeathing the genre to a new generation of innovators. "Nowhere," writes Frisch, "are the principles for which we value this composer most in greater evidence."