Brahms Symphony no. 4 in E minor, Op. 98

performed by the Vienna Philharmonic under Carlos Kleiber

Many hail this as the greatest recorded performance of the Brahms, and it is indeed exquisite.

We are here, I must admit, with even a little bit of apprehension, at the end of Brahms’ symphonic output. Granted, we have tons more Brahms to discover and discuss, everything from solo piano music, to vocal music, chamber works, some of his other large-scale compositions (the other concertos come to mind), but this is the end of the symphonic music. One, Two, Three, and now four just like that. I stubbornly pressed ahead a number of years ago and conjured up some article about the first like a procrastinating high school kid would do last minute for a homework assignment, but I really didn’t get the work like I do now, so that one’s due for a revisit, but this is the last one. It’s Brahms… the composer hailed to take the baton from Beethoven’s overwhelming clutches, and we are finishing the discussion of his symphonies. That being said, the reason I’m apprehensive to finish that cycle out is because they’re works that I know I will return to with newfound appreciation, different insights, a new perspective, as I have already reached with the first. That is to say that while we’re wrapping up a discussion of one of the smallest (only four symphonies!) and yet most influential cycles of classical music, I’m far from knowing anywhere near all there is to know about these four masterpieces.

The fourth. It was quick on the heels of the third, as the second was to the long-incubating first. Wikipedia tells me that “Among the four symphonies by Brahms this is the only one ending in a minor key. A typical performance lasts about 40 minutes.”

There’s not much said about the history or progress of the work, and if I go digging for program notes, I’ll be inclined to regurgitate everything I find, but I’ve been listening to this symphony for some time and have never really been interested or thought to look for compositional information until now. The piece is kind of a mystery to me, really. It begins, I feel, quite seriously, in medias res, some story having already unfolded before the players began, and we’re dropped into this slowly-swirling landscape, a magical world contrasting ups and downs. Wikipedia quotes Malcolm MacDonald in saying that there’s no exposition repeat because “the music is so ‘powerfully organic and continuously unfolding’ that such a repeat would hinder forward progress.” I would agree with both of those descriptors. It is as if the music continues to unravel, like the opposite of a Mandelbrot set, moving out to reveal a larger and larger picture as the piece unfolds. Not only is there not a repeat of the exposition, but the secondary theme seems to develop so naturally from the first (actually from the ‘transition motif’) that it feels more like we’re further along the continuing line of the symphony than it does a second, contrasting theme or section. The transition, as stated in Wikipedia’s analysis chart of the first movement, seems to take a while and rather evolve into the second theme as opposed to bridge to it. This transition theme hangs around, as well, having started in woodwinds with string accompaniment, but the two then reverse roles. This kind of contrast, up then down, flipping then flopping, creates this spinning sort of ever-changing environment that gives the work its organic feel. In one bright, triumphant moment at around 3:30 into Kleiber’s recording, there’s a burst of victorious unity, a fanfare-like celebration led by trumpets and later bolstered by the whole orchestra, until the opening gesture returns, giving the very convincing ‘oh yeah, here we are’ illusion of a repeat of the exposition, but no. One realizes quite quickly, though, even perhaps at first listen, that we’ve snuck rather than jumped forcefully into the development, and can enjoy Brahms’ creative genius.

A master of variations with an outstanding talent for using an extreme economy of material from which even his largest-scale works blossom, the development is a breathtaking passage, like the tornado scene in The Wizard of Oz where snippets and fragments of Dorothy’s life fly by one by one, except what we’re experiencing is pure genius, colorful remnants and sections of that opening that the listener might still be digesting. It’s restated, broken down, presented differently, perhaps even contradicting your memory of how it originally existed. Things suddenly appear out of nowhere, powerful, burly symphonic German bursts of Brahmsian sound contrasted with almost-Alpine bucolic plucked strings and pastoral winds. This movement is perfect proof that the symphonic tradition, even a century after Haydn’s Esterhazy symphonies and the birth of Beethoven, was still being developed and had plenty else to say. Brahms makes use of musical ideas, perhaps in a more abstract way, leaving an impression rather than an actual concrete melody, weaving an ever-more-complex fabric of ideas that originate with only a few simple gestures, reminding one of Beethoven’s symphonies, the enduring fifth with its themes that run through the entire work. Brahms’ opening movement here feels at once free and organic, but equally tightly-constructed and calculated, like perfectly-fitting, well-oiled gears whizzing away with seemingly no resistance. Memorably, Eduard Hanslick, a music critic of Brahms’ day, was a page turner at a private two piano performance of the work, stated of the first movement:

For this whole movement I had the feeling that I was being given a beating by two incredibly intelligent people.

Wikipedia quotes that from Walter Frisch’s book Brahms: the Four Symphonies, and qualifies the statement by saying that “Hanslick later spoke more approvingly of it,” without citation. I wouldn’t call that statement a negative one by any means. It was a statement with which I identified. The first movement has a certain cerebral nature to it, that one is observing a very genius thing happening and rather than try to stop it and take it apart to see how it works, it may be more gratifying just to sit back and enjoy its existence. And by the end of the first movement, I think that is the ultimate result for most listeners. It’s a journey that does not need a program or story or background. It stands on its own as pure, absolute music, a journey in and of itself.

The first movement is the longest, and the second, andante moderato, is second longest. The theme is first introduced by horns, and it may just be me, but the impression I get when this movement begins is that it’s another one that is going to give us a beautiful cerebral journey, that there’s something calculated, some serious potential in this seemingly effortless, natural opening gesture. And indeed, it does blossom to a beautiful sonata-ish movement, but warmer, and without a defined development section. There are some similarities here, though. There is something about the figures in this movement that relate it to the first. That aside, the transitional material is woodwind heavy, and the secondary theme is first presented by cellos, who sing sweetly a rich theme that the violins later take up.

I’ve always thought of a symphony with internal sonata form movements as making for quite a beefy work, one with more heft, and while this is a slow movement, full of lighter, warmer, more serene expressions, it has that more rigorous abbreviated sonata form. Listen for when cellos sing the opening theme that was first played by the horns. Like the first movement, it too has a coda. This movement doesn’t make you dizzy with beauty and genius, but leads you delicately by the hand, with more exposed textures, in some places almost serenade-like, and ends warmly.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I would like to present to you, as the third movement of Brahms’ fourth symphony, his first symphonic scherzo. That’s right, folks, it’s his first real scherzo in any of his symphonies. Even then, it doesn’t follow the scherzo-trio form, again bringing us a kind of compressed sonata form. It’s the brightest, most major-key music we’ve had so far, and is rather opposite to a Brucknerian scherzo. While it has symphonic power and punch, it’s not the terrifying tower of power that the Austrian would construct, (like we saw in Bruckner’s second last week). There are passages that are bouncy and buoyant and playful, even cute, but always exquisitely executed and never letting the energy of the movement (or really of the entire symphony) drop. The ‘development’ that makes for the central part of a sonata-form movement also sounds to act like a trio, a middle contrasting passage, but this movement is also the shortest of the symphony and with our economy of very charming material, it’s over in a hurry, by far the brightest, lightest of the entire work.

Despite the triumphant, glorious end of the scherzo, we haven’t gotten to the finale yet. There’s still the finale, which is, as Wikipedia says:

notable as a rare example of a symphonic passacaglia, which is similar to a chaconne with the slight difference that the subject can appear in more voices than the bass. For the repeating theme, Brahms adapted the chaconne theme in the closing movement of Johann Sebastian Bach‘s cantata, Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich, BWV 150.

It brings us back to the serious nature of the opening movement, and it feels a bit like Brahms was climbing to the greatest heights of musical complexity and achievement, quoting Bach and being “rich in allusions, most notably to various Beethoven compositions.” People like Walter Frisch and even Arnold Schoenberg have analyzed the work with varying ideas, the former providing “yet further interpretation to Brahms’ structure of this work, by giving sections sonata form dimensions,” while the latter “pointed out several thematic relationships in the score,” something fitting for Schoenberg, I guess.

To be perfectly honest, I can’t really hear each of the thirty individual variations presented in this movement, and likely wouldn’t have been able to identify that had I not read it. I can’t think of a much grander way to end your final symphony than an outstandingly, shimmering, exquisitely executed Romantic application of “a musical form that originated in early seventeenth-century Spain,” and with Brahms’ knack for variation and themes and development, it seems a perfect way for him to flex his compositional creativity. Things at once sound similar and yet new and different. I get the impression that this movement, while monumental and satisfying and powerful and richly symphonic, was Brahms satisfying his own creative desire, writing for (and perhaps even challenging) himself, in constructing and wrapping up one of the most well-crafted symphonies ever written.

One gets the sense that with the cutoff of that final chord, an era has ended. While Brahms did not die with the completion of this piece, nor did he even stop composing (as he later swore he would), and while there were still many great symphonies to come (for reference, this symphony premiered the year before Bruckner’s seventh, and a few years before Mahler’s first came on the scene), Brahms was undeniably a connection, almost by (musical) blood, to an earlier era, a seriously rich musical tradition stretching back to Schumann, Beethoven, Haydn, and even Bach, and here he brings the world his final symphony, and what a masterful one it is.

Clearly in an entirely different vein than Bruckner, it pays homage to earlier forms, before the rise of the symphonic poem, program music, Wagner’s leitmotifs and the Romantic era pushing traditional harmonies and forms to their breaking point, but for as ‘conservative’ a composer as he was claimed to have been, his final symphony (and each of the earlier ones) is equally as Romantic as Bruckner or Mahler, and aside from the first as ‘Beethoven’s tenth’, no Brahms symphony has ever had a subtitle, a moniker, a nickname, and this is no different. Brahms’ fourth stands on its own as an epic, triumphant cap on a (relatively) small but enormously powerful, successful cycle from one of the biggest names in classical music.

And that’s it for Brahms for now. We’ve done lots of German (and Austrian) music this year, and we’re not quite stopping yet. It won’t be until August that we move on to some different parts of the world, but there are some wonderful things to look forward to before this month ends, so stay tuned.


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