Johannes Brahms symphony no. 4, opus 98, is a masterpiece that stays in the annals of history of music and the history of symphony. Completed in the 19-th century, it had such glorious predecessors as Beethoven’s symphonies. Therefore, in the times of Brahms, the symphony was considered the proper of great Beethoven and anybody who had courage to compose in this genre would inevitably face the possibility to be compared with Beethoven.
Johannes Brahms worried that he was not worthy of the musical tradition set by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. One of the most unfortunate effects of his lack of confidence was expressed in an unwillingness to compose a symphony because he was afraid of being compared unfavourably to those masters, waiting until he was 43 years old to complete his First Symphony. However, once he had completed that initial symphony, he quickly adapted to the form, producing his remaining three symphonies in the space of only nine years.
Each seemed to be more successful than its predecessors were; each introduced more depth and innovation from the most complex of the 19-th century composers. Just as Brahms’s First and Second symphonies appeared in rapid succession as a contrasting pair, so did the Third and Fourth. The Third was finished in the summer of 1883 and the Fourth was begun the following summer. The first mention of the Fourth Symphony is in a letter dated 19 August 1884 from Brahms to his publisher, Fritz Simrock; the work was completed about a year later at Miirzzuschlag in Styria.
In October 1885 Brahms and Ignaz Briill gave a two-piano reading of it for a small group of friends including the critic Eduard Hanslick, the surgeon Theodor Billroth, and the historian and Haydn scholar C. F. Pohl. Brahms conducted the first orchestral performance at Meiningen on 25 October 1885 . It is very interesting to observe Brahms’s progress as a symphonist. He lived in the time of romanticism in music, when considerations of form gave place to subjective expression. F.
Liszt was then creating his symphonic poems and R. Wagner produced his amazing music dramas – all works strongly colored by literary and poetic ideas, and by a very personal attitude on the part of the composer. Brahms, in his First symphony, if not an outright romanticist, is yet “romantic” in his attitude, just as Beethoven in his Fifth symphony. Later we see Brahms’s progression backward – from the “romantic” to the “classic” stress. The Fourth symphony is a pure classic masterpiece.
However, the symphony is not only a work of design; it has a subjective undercurrent behind itself. It is perhaps significant that Brahms, ordinarily certain of himself and his work, had misgivings and questionings about this symphony. Some find the symphony an expression of pessimism. They say that it is bitter, that it drips melancholy like the yew tree, that its thoughts are of death. In fact, by that time Brahms had lost his mother who died of a heart attack. He devoted this symphony to the memory of his mother. But pessimism is not despair.
At the time when Brahms wrote this symphony, his thoughts were turning towards his own end which was near, and death must have appeared as it should appear to all of us, as a tender friend and a supreme consoler. Brahms’s symphonic work embraces all that is tragic and glorious in his music. There is tragedy even in the most wonderful of these movements, where we hear yearning for things gone beyond recall, but more especially in those where he strives to renew the traditions of the classics and proves splendidly that inherited forms may be filled with new matter .
Nevertheless, one may safely predict that those portions of his work which show a master’s discipline and noble intention as perhaps the most impressive marks of his character, will not be held in so great and lasting an affection as those where he is wholly himself, and where only his pure and great heart, so full of riches and yet so closely guarded, is heard to beat. He deliberately took a path that led him away from the land of romance to seek the land of Bach and Beethoven with all the ardor of his soul.
But the spell of the blue flower was stronger. He fancied that he had eschewed the enchantment, but this was a delusion, for he remained a romantic all his life, a dreamy enthusiast, a deep feeling recluse, who clothed in new magical sounds the voices of rustling woodlands, the radiant eyes of virginal queens, the scattered tones of lost love-songs–all this, and his own life, blessed by sorrows and raptures. It is there that he is irresistible and unforgettable.
Where he played the part of “heir” he had too little to squander, though he won and consolidated precious treasure enough. Only as the eternal youth, as one wrestling and longing and drinking from abundant wellsprings, as one of the beloved fairy-tale princes of music who ever and again awaken to deliver sleeping princesses, did he in truth find the land of Bach and of Beethoven. To many listeners, the Third Symphony might have seemed like the natural goal of Brahms’s development as a symphonist because it combined the simple characters of folksong and romantic.
It added an intense instrumental idiom and deep sense of coherence and overall structure, resolving its tensions at the close in a manner increasingly characteristic of the expression of his most profound songs. Yet any such impression would soon have been dispelled by the symphony, which followed shortly after in 1885, for here he recalls the wealth of ideas, which characterize the Second Symphony and the earnestness, and sense of structural culmination of the First Symphony. Yet here the drama is of a different kind.
It is not the classic nineteenth-century struggle from minor to major, in Brahms’s case full of romantic symbols in its final stages, but rather an abstract drama, which reaches its climax through the sheer intellectual rigor and energy of its finale rather than through any conventional symbols. It ends securely in the key in which it began, E minor. And if the Third Symphony had gained something of the personal quality of its opening from the memories of Schubert and Schumann, this goes back to memories of Beethoven and Bach.
For, not only does the finale take Bach as its starting point, but the first movement takes Beethoven. As has been noted, the first subject clearly draws on the slow movement of the ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata (bars 78-86) where an identical outline appears as a consequence of the evolving influence of the interval of the third. Yet it comes through an entirely Brahms’ mediation. The setting is very close to the somber opening in which he was soon to place the first of the Motets op.
110, the same key and broad shape expressing the text ‘Ich aber bin elend’ – ‘But Lord, I am wretched’. Yet the symphony’s is a more animated, complex type of expression whose distinctive two-note phrasing actually finds its closest parallel in a piece in total stylistic contrast to the motet -the Waltz in D minor, op. 39 no. 9. From this very personal stylistic chemistry, Brahms builds a movement and a work whose lofty style is closest to the Tragic Overture, a greater example of the ‘sublime style’ noted in the great choral works with orchestra.
And from them it takes much of its orchestral character, especially the fullness of Brahms’ scoring, and the telling use of the flute, especially at bar 128 of the finale – surely a Grecian symbol. While Brahms has long since parted company with the storm and stress of the First symphony, the accents of the Fourth are in the highest degree charged with the resignation and the profound understanding that his own earnest nature and the passage of the years had brought him, and the nobility that existed under his crusty exterior.
In viewing the work as a whole, its background again provides a key to its special nature and sense of direction. Indeed, it may well reveal the reverse case to that of the First Symphony, for even if it seems clear that it was the resolution of the first movement’s implications that provided the compositional problem of the earlier work, it appears likely that the finale was here the starting point and thus determinant of the work’s structural nature. And even if other ideas existed at this earlier stage, the special nature of the finale provided the dominant focus for their working and shape.
Much of the Fourth symphony is melancholy and lamentful, but it is relieved by the consolatory beatitude of the andante and the elevating stateliness of the conclusion. The austerity with which the composer has been reproached—in many instances unjustly—is here pronounced. The solidity of the structure may be admired, but the structure itself is granitic and unrelieved. The symphony has not the epic grandeur of the first, the geniality of the second, the wealth of varied beauty that distinguishes the third.
Although the precise date is not known, Brahms had shown interest in the chaconne bass of the finale of Bach’s Cantata No. 150 “Nach Dir, Herr Verlanget mich” some time before the symphony’s appearance. The conductor Siegfried Ochs recalls him demonstrating to Hans von Bulow the structure of the Bach movement, to which von Bulow responded coolly, arguing that it needed more than voices. Brahms agreed, commenting: “What would you say to a symphonic movement written on this theme one day? But it is too lumpish, too straightforward. It would have to be chromatically altered in some way.
” Just how the alteration was effected is clear from the work, where Brahms extends the model from its five-bar length to eight bars, substituting equal dotted minims for its minim-crotchet pattern and creating a climax in the chromatic alteration of A sharp. Now it appears as leading note to the dominant, B. But how the work as a whole stood in his mind at this earlier stage is not clear. Brahms was aware of the possibility that a variation finale can be assumed from the model of Beethoven, and the St Antoni Variations had already presented a basso ostinato variation finale.
Yet the precise nature of a finale, which reflected both stimuli – that of a symphonic design in a harmonically restricted form – must have occupied him for long before a solution became clear. In considering the problems, Brahms drew on a considerable knowledge of the form of the chaconne and passacaglia, as has earlier been shown. In the actual period of the work’s completion, he acknowledged special interest in the Organ Passacaglia in G minor by Georg Muffat, describing it to Elizabeth von Herzogenberg in 1883 as very fine and acknowledging possession of a copy.
His work on the Couperin Edition for Chrysander also gave him an acquaintance with an example from the very different tradition of the French clavecinists through the form of the Rondeau Passacaille. But the movement for which he had the deepest feeling was the Bach Chaconne for unaccompanied violin. He wrote to Clara Schumann, to whom the arrangement for the piano, left hand, was dedicated, in the following terms: For me the Chaconne is one of the most incredible pieces of music. Using a single system for a little instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest and most powerful expression.
If I ask myself if I had written this piece – been able to conceive it – I know for certain the emotions excited would have driven me mad. If one does not have a great violinist at hand, the most exquisite of joys is surely simply to let the Chaconne ring in one’s mind. But the piece certainly entices one to occupy oneself with it somehow. From this, he concludes that the only comparable experience is to play it with the parallel restrictions of left hand alone. It seems interesting that in referring to the other ways of imagining the work recreated he mentions the orchestra.
It is not difficult to see the manner and structure of this Chaconne, which he knew so intimately, mixing with his transformation of the Bach cantata bass to provide the foundations of a movement through which both vocal and instrumental limitations are transcended in his most powerful variation structure. Heinrich Reimann gives a short description of the symphony: “A theme of the second movement constantly returns in varied form, from which the chief theme, the staccato figure given to the wind, and the melodious song of the violoncellos are derived.
The third movement, allegro giocoso, sports with old-fashioned harmonies, which should not be taken too seriously” . Seen against the background of Brahms’s earlier variations, this movement is unique in its observation of a clear A B A – Coda form. The contrast is provided by changes in dynamics, frequently in mode, and partly in meter. The return of the opening introduces variation both thematically and in the scope of harmonic movement within the tight restriction of the model, taken even further in the coda.
All the previous variations are continuous, though the contrast of mode to major is established from the Variation on an Original Theme. The Bach Chaconne therefore assumes great interest in its adoption of a ternary outline through contrast of mode, in its variation of harmony at the reprise (though the theme is not recalled) and in its length – both movements building to thirty variations from an eight-bar model. The form of the Chaconne is also crucial to understanding Brahms’s harmonic methods.
Although elements of passacaglia are used in this movement – that is of a repeated ground bass ostinato – the chief spirit of the movement is that of harmonic retention, from which the composer can dramatically move for effect. The model is compounded of Bach’s bass in modified form as upper part with a Brahms’ bass in which descending thirds are prominent. This provides the model for the first four variations and the background to the reprise, with its increasingly free harmonic working until Brahms breaks completely away from the previous patterns in the coda, loosening the original phrasing.
The intervening harmony is built either on the ground (variations 4-11, 14-16), or on pedal variants, as in the central part, variations 12-13. Thus, as in earlier variation movements, there are two harmonic models with other freer types, though it is the first, with the theme in the upper part, which has the role of articulating the large structure. This represents, therefore, a considerably more complex form than its immediate predecessor, the ostinato variations of the St Antoni Variations.
In fact, Brahms brings to fulfillment the inherent influence of the chaconne, noted as early as the variations of the B flat Sextet though with the added aspect of the passacaglia reflected in the Second Serenade and the St Antoni Variations, together with the outline of sonata form. It is the latter aspect that creates the variation of the reprise, since development cannot be used in the subdued central section. Clearly, such a distinctive structure could not have provided the symphonic climax without intimate relations with the other movements.
The observation of the contrapuntal connection between the descending thirds of variation 30 and the first subject of the first movement is only one of many which could be made, for this work is perhaps more subtly and comprehensively integrated than any other. Not only are thirds omnipresent in the work’s thematic material – as in the bass of the model – but many other links exist, including the anticipation of the ground in the first subject (bars 9-15). Most impressive, however, is the special harmonic language of the work, which is drawn from the harmony of the model.
Both plagal and Phrygian progressions contribute further to the deeply archaic quality of much of the music. For example, the first subject is built on plagal progressions and the movement ends with a very impressive plagal cadence enhanced by pedal. The harmonic language of the second movement is even more special in its modal associations, as will be shown. All these features serve to support the more obvious surface function of variation. For the principle of successive variation, which dominates the finale also, soaks the work as a whole.
The links are clearest in the first movement for two principal reasons: the structure of the movement as a whole and, directly related to it, the nature of the first subject. Brahms’s tendency to recall the opening material after the recapitulation where no repeat is incorporated finds a particularly plain expression in this movement, which brings an approach associated with finales – those of the First and Third Symphonies and of the Piano Quintet into the context of a symphonic first movement.
Yet the method is here different, for this is no conflated development/recapitulation structure, but rather a modification of the conventional scheme, since the recapitulation follows the third tonic statement of the idea at bar 246. The special form arises from the special nature of the main subject itself, a lyric paragraph whose essential sixteen bar structure is extended by internal variation to create a sectional impression – the sense of a model which demands repetition in a way quite unlike the main subjects of the other symphonies. Thus, the movement assumes a variation-aspect at two levels.
Viewed most broadly, it falls into three sections, closely related by their presentation of the same passage. Although the third statement is made more elusive by the recall of its opening phrases in augmentation, linked by figuration in the strings, the overall effect is clear when the theme resumes at bar 246. As far as the sections themselves are concerned, they also appear strongly variational through the immediate repetition of the first theme, that of the development offering an alternative to that of the exposition, bars 145-152 comparing with bars 1-7.
Thus, Brahms draws on his earlier tendency to construct the transition by variation of the first subject (compare with the Second Symphony) into a much broader context. In the sections of passing variation, which have become so characteristic, although never with the clarity and deep thematicism of, for example, bars 80-6 or 95-8, the development draws so often on variation that it directly recalls the finale.
Thus, after the varied repeat of the opening of the development, bars 169-84 present another section of clear variational identity, here through motive variation of the preceding bars treated in a stretto which quickly removes the sense of accentual identity, offering yet a further example of how Brahms learned from Beethoven the art of displacing the beat through the relentless repetition of a simple figure. This passage is complemented at bar 192 by a more direct variation of the opening subject, the section again alternating with the marcato figure of the transition, which serves to direct and articulate the music’s progress.
At bar 119, the finale is even more clearly foreshadowed, mediating between the variation and the work’s first subject, which it clearly outlines, drawing particularly on the original flute parts to ensure connection. In turn, the following passage from bar 237 varies the following bars, focusing on a one-bar figure, whilst recalling the color-contrast of the variations, which lead to the reprise of the finale. It is inherent in such a structure that radical alterations of the recapitulation would have disturbed the variational relationship of the first three parts.
Rather, as in the finale, it is the coda, which exhibits the development quality with the most rapid modulations and intense treatment of ideas. Yet variation remains the chief model. The powerful statement of the first subject at bar 394 is remarkable in its transformation. The theme appears in canon between the outer parts, actually retaining its identity for far longer than the ear might suggest (14 bars in all) before a bridge to an intense treatment of the transition idea of bar 414.
This remarkable intensity is achieved through a use of stretto, in which Brahms seems to press to extremes the possible relationship between the harmonies permissible in his style and the logic of the contrapuntal movement, a quality that he shared to a remarkable degree with Mozart. In a period, which includes some of Brahms’s most powerful first-movement codas, this is surely the most impressive in its nature and its structural function. Of the impressive central movements with which Brahms completes his overall scheme, the second relates most clearly to the principles outlined.
Indeed, its leisurely first section from bar 5 parallels that of the first in its relation to earlier works. An eight-bar theme of the simplest phrasing returns after a nine-bar digression to complete an exposition in simple A B A form. The following transition proceeds again by simple variation to establish, through ideas, which relate to the parallel part of the first movement. The dominant of B for the second subject, after which there is a further variation of the first theme with descending wind figures reflects the first subject of the work and strings employ pizzicato.
Bar 74 initiates an imitative development very much in the spirit of that of the finale of op. 18, after which the second subject completes the conflated scheme: 1 – tr 2 – 1 – dev – 2 – coda. Yet its straightforwardness comes into a completely different perspective when set in its harmonic context. It can be seen as perhaps the boldest and most far-reaching of Brahms’s experiments with modal effects. For, the opening partly suggests a tonic C despite the preceding cadence, one interprets the unison opening as rooted in the lower mediant of E minor.
Yet at the end of the phrase, Brahms turns the closing E into the tonic of a modified sonata movement, which makes a conventional contrast (though now unusual for Brahms) with the dominant, B, for its second subject. Such an opening must have a consequence in a Brahms’ movement and the key of C returns in the closing bars as an alternate harmonization of the opening theme in succession to the chromatic harmonization of the theme in E. Thus, Brahms juxtaposes the keys of E and C through a common theme.
The ‘framing’ effect of the C tonality and its final resolution is evident. Whilst this passage can be seen as simply one of effect, the suggestion of a Phrygian tonality, it may also be seen in more far-reaching terms. For, unlike the other authentic modes, the dominant of the Phrygian is not on B, but on C, since it cannot form a perfect fifth from B to F sharp. Thus, though Brahms may well begin with a mere ‘effect’, the harmonic implications are readily grasped and he, though very briefly, actually contrives to close with a Phrygian aspect.
The Austrian theorist Heinrich Schenker once stated that the capacity to write in the modes lay even beyond a genius like Beethoven, that the Lydian movement of op. 132 simply used modern tonality to suggest a mode through the omission of any B flat and other means. Is it not possible that Brahms’s deep interest in the issue led him to go a little further in the attempt to unite modern tonality and the principles of modality in one movement? After such tonal stress, the key of the third movement appears inevitable.
Yet in its manner, the movement stands in strong contrast to the parallel movements of the later works. As is often pointed out, Brahms avoids the scherzo-substitutes of his maturity for a scherzo of an individual nature -not a 6/8, but a driving 2/4 movement. Yet its character is surely not without precedent. Just as Brahms had drawn on the ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata as the starting point for a reinterpretation of a powerful idea, so the deep historical background to this work leads him to draw on the second movement of the late Piano Sonata in A flat op.
110 whose thematic outline complements its metrical character in providing his basis. Yet in no other sense does the form relate to tradition, for Brahms constructs a continuous movement, sustained by variation in which the Trio contrast is limited to a very brief passage from bar 178 to bar 198, which simply transforms the character of the opening, to play a part in the broader scheme. And now we are going to make a profound emotional analysis of the symphony.
Let us take take the opening. The violins play a melody that starts as a series of two-note sighs, each sigh consisting either of a descending third (for example, B to G) or of the same interval inverted into an ascending sixth (for example, E to C, but going up to the next-highest C rather than down). Woodwinds echo these figures, but as chords, with the two notes played simultaneously.
It is hard for us to think of a lovelier, more inviting opening to a symphony – of course, its familiarity help. Something preparatory, even if it were only two measures of unison B, would help listeners find their way in. This opening is immediately followed by a second statement of the melody, this time in broken octaves and in dialogue between first and second violins, with elaborate decorative material in violas and cellos. This was thought exceedingly difficult to unravel.