Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98
Related Artists/CompaniesJohannes Brahms
About the Work
In the 1920s Schoenberg orchestrated three of Bach's organ works: two chorale preludes and the large-scaled Prelude and Fugue in E-flat known as the "St. Anne" (BWV 552). Chief among Webern's arrangements of earlier music is the orchestration he completed in 1935 of the six-part Ricercare that concludes the Musical Offering (or serves as its centerpiece, depending on whose edition you prefer). Brahms, in the late 1870s, made piano transcriptions of two of Bach's violin pieces: the Presto that concludes the Sonata in G major (BWV 1021) and, for the left hand alone, the famous Chaconne that concludes the Partita in D minor (BWV 1004). He then became intrigued with a different Bach chaconne that would become the core material for the last of his four symphonies.
When Brahms completed the Fourth Symphony, in the Styrian resort town of Mürzzuschalg in the summer of 1885, he referred to it humorously as "a few entr'actes and polkas which I happened to have lying about," but he was quite aware of what he had achieved in this work, and he was not prepared for the cool reception he received when he returned to Vienna and played a two-piano reduction of the score (with Ignaz Brüll as his keyboard partner) for a group of his closest friends. The assembled company—the conductor Hans Richter (Brahms's enthusiastic champion, who had given the premiere of the Third Symphony), the surgeon Theodor Billroth, the music critics Eduard Hanslick and Max Kalbeck—greeted the work with little more than polite silence. The next day, Kalbeck (Brahms's first biographer) went so far as to tell the composer that the final movement, in variation form, was unsuitable for a symphony and ought to be replaced. Brahms simply pointed out that Beethoven had composed a variation finale for the Eroica, and stuck to his guns; the finale came to be the most admired part of the work.
Hans von Bülow (the renowned pianist and conductor who coined the phrase "the Three B's," indicating Brahms as successor to Bach and Beethoven) made his orchestra in Meiningen available for the premiere, which Brahms conducted there on October 25, 1885. The audience gave the new work a sustained ovation (with vociferous but unrewarded demands for a repetition of the third movement). Similar levels of enthusiasm greeted the Fourth in the German and Dutch cities in which Brahms and the Meiningen Orchestra performed the work in the three weeks following the premiere—but when Richter introduced it in Vienna, on January 17, 1886, the audience was as unresponsive as the group of friends had been earlier. Hugo Wolf, the famous composer of songs who was also active as a critic, savaged the Fourth in his review, and his fellow critics were hardly less hostile. Several years would pass before the Fourth found acceptance in Vienna.
It is hard to imagine now that a work that speaks to us with such engaging directness might ever have faced such resistance. The opening movement has a noble, reserved dignity, bordering on austerity but flowing with the natural momentum and appealing blend of the lyric and heroic elements that Brahms balanced so effectively in so much of his music. These qualities are evident in the undemonstratively self-confident theme stated at the outset and are intertwined in the two others on which the movement is built.
The Andante moderato that follows, possibly the finest of all of Brahms's marvelous slow movements, is distinguished for its straightforwardness and all-round warmth of heart. The initial horn theme and the succeeding cantilena for the cellos evoke a mood of gentle melancholy and nostalgia. The young Richard Strauss told Brahms this music suggested "a funeral procession moving in silence across moonlit heights." Brahms's friend Elisabeth von Herzogenberg wrote to him: "It is like a stroll through an ideal landscape at sunset, as its tones become warmer and diffused with a crimson glow . . . "
In the third movement (Allegro giocoso), as Olin Downes wrote some eighty years ago, "we have Brahms as Old Bear's Paws." This is an out-and-out scherzo in everything but name, the most exuberant such piece in any of Brahms's symphonies, with an unabashedly prominent triangle and some imaginative rhythmic by-play driving home its festive character.
The remarkable finale, at once majestic and decidedly dramatic, is what eventually became of Brahms's fascination with the concluding chorus of Bach's Cantata No. 150, Nach Dir, Herr, verlanget mich. That piece is in the form of a brief chaconne; Brahms had played a piano reduction of it for Bülow and some other friends as early as 1880, and advised that he was contemplating a symphonic movement based on it. Such a movement did not turn up in his Third Symphony, composed in 1883, but was reserved to provide the climax of this quite different work. This finale is itself sometimes described as a chaconne, but is more widely regarded as a passacaglia. Actually, these two terms have become more or less interchangeable in our time, indicating a certain modification of theme-and-variation form—and both titles have taken on connotations of profundity and even spirituality, quite unrelated to the light-hearted pieces known at the end of the sixteenth century, when the Spaniards brought the chaconne to Europe from Peru.
No matter how Max Kalbeck may have felt about a variation-finale for a symphony, it was hardly a new or radical idea when Brahms composed his Fourth. Such symphonies are in sufficient number for us to observe that in more than a few of them the earlier movements might be regarded, to a greater or lesser degree, as further variations—in this sense proleptic ones—on the theme we do not meet in its original form until the finale. Dvorák's Eighth Symphony, in G major, comes to mind as an illustrative example; and a similar case might be made for the Eroica itself, but the impression is especially strong in the present work. In light of the probability that the finale was the first part of this symphony that Brahms composed, it is not much of a stretch to regard the three other movements as constituting additional (and more expansive) variations on the same theme—whether by design or simply as inevitable consequence of the powerful stimulus this lifelong "variation composer" found in the chaconne-finale of the Bach cantata.
While the background given here is by no means essential to the listener's appreciation and enjoyment of this symphony, its towering finale exudes a generative power that ranks high among its numerous distinctions. In more than thirty concise but exceptionally characterful variations, Brahms here explores a range of emotion as well as sheer orchestral color beyond anything he had attempted in his earlier symphonies, and it is significant that he did not attempt to extend his symphonic canon further in the dozen years left to him after completing this work. In any event, it was at his final appearance in public, less than four weeks before his death, that the Viennese at last acknowledged the Fourth Symphony's stature and took it to their hearts, in an outpouring of admiration and affection such as few composers can have experienced. Richter was again the conductor, on March 7, 1897. The scene was captured touchingly by Florence May, an English pianist who studied briefly with the composer and became his biographer, in this frequently quoted passage in her Life of Brahms:
"A storm of applause broke out at the end of the first movement, not to be quieted until the composer, coming to the front of the artists' box in which he was seated, showed himself to the audience. The demonstration was renewed after the second and third movements, and an extraordinary scene followed the conclusion of the work. The applauding, shouting house, its gaze riveted on the figure standing in the balcony, so familiar and yet in present aspect so strange, seemed unable to let him go. Tears ran down his cheeks as he stood there in shrunken form, with lined countenance, strained expression, white hair hanging lank; and through the audience there was a feeling as of a stifled sob, for each knew that they were saying farewell."