Symphony No. 4 in E Minor, op. 98

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        “This is a chosen one.”  Robert Schumann so characterized Johannes Brahms in his famous article that introduced the young Brahms to the public.  Little did he know!  Brahms went on to become the last great successor of the artistic mantle of musical Classicism that led from Joseph Haydn, through Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert.  That’s taking the rather narrow view, of course, for there were others that followed who revered the classical attributes of restraint, balance, clarity of form, elegance, and general equipoise that characterized the collective features that came to be known as classical style.   And they stand in clear contrast to the sweeping trends and excesses of musical Romanticism that came to dominate European music until the cataclysm of World War I.

        Simply put, the composers of the nineteenth century after Beethoven tended to divide themselves into two groups.  The progressives were true “Romantics,” and were greatly influenced by the extra-musical ideas that were the subjects of contemporary literature, poetry, and painting, among others.  They devised new genres, such as the tone poems of Smetana and Liszt, the music dramas of Wagner, and the characteristic piano pieces of Chopin.  Much of this music, to use a phrase still common among seekers of meaning in music, was about “something”--meaning something familiar to human experience. Liszt and Wagner, et al, while respecting the music of the past, saw no future in continuing that tradition.

        Others, Brahms most significantly, still adhered strongly to the style of Beethoven that focused on the purely musical.   He and other conservatively minded musicians held that the traditional forms of sonata, concerto, and symphony had not nearly exhausted their viability, and that music should continue to speak in an integrated language that referred to itself, alone, and certainly not to extra-musical ideas.  So, he and his ilk continued to write “pure,” or “abstract” music, like sonatas and symphonies (a so-called symphony is just a sonata for orchestra). Today, most of those who compose, perform, and listen to art music see no contradiction at all in valuing both broad aesthetic viewpoints—so we enjoy the best of both worlds. The example of Beethoven’s music loomed overwhelming for Brahms, and he waited for decades to essay his first symphony, completing it in 1876, when he was forty-three years old.  It has long since taken its place at the center of the orchestra’s repertoire.

         Well, it didn’t take Brahms nearly so long to write his second symphony as it did the first, and the mood of that work is a strong contrast to that of the mighty seriousness of the first. This sunny work followed shortly in 1877, but then a hiatus occurred while Brahms devoted himself to other masterpieces, including the Academic Festival Overture and the monumental second piano concerto.  He returned to the symphonic genre and finished the third symphony in 1883.  It is the shortest of the four symphonies, and in many respects the most straightforward in musical and psychological content.  Finally, in 1885, there appeared the epic and beloved fourth symphony.                       

        This is a work in which astounding technical proficiency, intellectual seriousness of purpose, and general musical craftsmanship are woven together in a seamless exploration of tragedy.    But certainly not the dark, abject, personal tragedy found, say in works of someone like Tchaikovsky.  His was, rather, that of a deep, reflective rumination over the fate of all mankind as might be undertaken by a great philosopher or poet.  Brahms was a wise, highly educated man, who took pleasure in the quotidian ordinary beauties of human existence, but who nevertheless understood the need to reflect upon the greater picture of our lives.  And his music eloquently mirrors those considerations.

        The main theme of this last, great symphony begins right off with an impressive “drooping” idea, whose breathless quality is engendered by the rests after each two-note pair.  This inimitable idea informs almost every bar of the movement and teaches us that Brahms is not a “classicist” simply because he used the forms of folks like Beethoven and Mozart, but because of his astounding skill—like them—to develop great things from simple ideas:  think of the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth.  A fanfare-like figure (of great importance throughout much of the movement) takes us to the second theme, a broad and expansive one heard in the violoncellos and horns.  Soon, it is transformed into a thumping affair that to this writer has always sounded like a powerful Brahmsian tango, if nothing else—you’ll hear it!  The movement relentlessly proceeds, a masterpiece of musical skill that uses almost every technique in the book, and is ample evidence of Brahms’ deep study and understanding of the different musical styles of the past:  Josquin, Palestrina, Bach—the whole lot.  No composer before him literally knew so much about the musical styles of the past and how to integrate them into a new contemporary language.

          The second movement opens with a powerful statement by the unison horns, the general sound of which suggests some ancient procession or ritual, and in fact, the harmony that Brahms employs offers some vague suggestion of an ancient Church mode—yet again evidence of his deep awareness of the usefulness of the past.  Clarinets, accompanied by pizzicato strings, take up the theme, as the solemn procession plods on.  Gorgeous string scoring leads to the second idea, which the composer typically presents to us in an ingenious variety of guises, but always without empty “padding.”  The main theme ends it as it began, leaving us wondering exactly what world we have visited.

         A vigorous scherzo follows—right in the tradition of Beethoven.  It’s a driven fury of a movement, fulfilling the traditional requirement at this point of a “dance-like” movement.  However, it’s not in the traditional three-beat time, but in a hammering two-beat affair, in which the composer makes rare use of the triangle; it’s so prominent—and startling, one might say, for a composer with Brahms’ conservative reputation—that some pundits once considered it “abused” in this romping movement.

         The last movement is unique—literally.   Nothing more aptly illustrates Brahms’ skill at infusing new—dare I say, “romantic”—life into an old technique than this, the last movement of his last symphony.  It was, and still is, most unusual to craft a symphonic movement around the Baroque device of passacaglia (Brahms called it a chaconne).  The technique simply takes a bass line (or sequence of harmonies) and repeats it multiple times, each with a new variation crafted above, around, or under it.   Bach, Purcell and other composers of the seventeen and eighteen hundreds used the trick commonly, but certainly not the “modern” composers of the 1880s.  Here, Brahms takes an eight-measure melody—one note to a bar, slightly altered—that seems to have its origin in a Bach cantata.  It’s heard boldly pronounced right from the beginning, and thereafter ensue thirty-four magical variations and a coda that have no real parallel in symphonic music.   Using the same musical imagination so thoroughly put to work earlier in his Variations on a Theme by Haydn, Brahms crafts every kind of musical garb for the simple theme.  There are light moments, dark ones; dancing rhythms and solemn chorales; and colorful orchestration of almost every type that highlights every instrument in the orchestra.  It’s a virtuoso demonstration of why Brahms stands in the highest ranks of composers—beauty, profundity, and technique wedded together seamlessly.

        Today, it is astounding to reflect that many of Brahms’ contemporaries—respected men, all—roundly condemned him for a lack of imagination, and just about any other virtue of great musical composition.  Today, we understand him, and revere his music as having no superiors in those qualities.  The world is a better place for his efforts; his critics were wrong.   His Viennese public knew better—in one of his very last public appearances before his death, the audience gave him a roaring ovation after every movement of his last symphony.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan