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Although his catalog lists just four symphonies, Brahms wrote several other works that come close to that genre: his First Piano Concerto was indeed planned as a symphony, and the Second (which is in four movements) has been called a symphony with piano obbligato. Although the Second and Third Symphonies were introduced in Vienna, Brahms decided to give his Fourth Symphony an out-of-town tryout. He himself conducted the premiere (in October 1885) with the Meiningen Court Orchestra, where the audience was enthusiastic. Vienna was not so receptive when the work was introduced there a few months later. As it turned out, a mere ten years after his First Symphony had been given its premiere, Brahms had written his last symphony. Two years later came the Double Concerto, whose two solo parts (violin and cello) remind us of the old sinfonia concertante form, but there were to be no more symphonies.

For his final essay in symphonic form, Brahms produced a monumental work whose first movement grows from the simplest of materials, a simple rising and falling interval, out of which he develops long lines of powerfully emotional, yet unsentimental grandeur. The relentless organic development, which begins even as themes are being stated, leads to a complex interaction of motives and melodic fragments. The composer’s friend Elisabeth von Herzogenberg wrote to him of her fears that he was dwelling too much on creating intricate thematic connections that would obscure his musical communication for the untrained listener: “…one rejoices with all the excitement of an explorer or scientist on discovering the secrets of your creation! But there comes a point where a certain doubt creeps in…that its beauties are not accessible to every normal music-lover.”

What makes the music so compelling, in fact, may be the way the longer lines ebb and flow with great urgency and lyrical beauty, while at the same time the contrapuntal complexities lend substance and richness to the texture. As an example of how the opposing camps of Wagnerites and Brahmsians always seemed to have something nasty to say about each other, note the comment of composer Hugo Wolf – one of the Symphony’s detractors – that Brahms was “composing without ideas.” Schoenberg, although he followed in the wake of Wagner’s progressive chromatic proclivities, was a strong supporter of what he described as Brahms’ technique of “developing variation.” Certainly Beethoven had proved that minimal materials could be the source of substantial music.

After the powerful conclusion of the first movement, Brahms introduces the second movement with a forceful statement by two horns, followed by a ravishing passage in which all of the strings play delicate pizzicato chords supporting a sustained melody in the winds. As in the famous finale (in which Brahms looks to earlier musical models for his structure), there is an archaic quality to this music, which is the result, in part, of the composer’s use of the medieval Phrygian mode. This rather mournful meditation is interrupted by more animated passages, but there is an overriding tone of “the shadow of an inevitable fate.” (Karl Geiringer)

In the other Brahms symphonies, there is no movement that could be said to fulfill the role of the scherzo in the Beethoven mold; that is not true in the Fourth Symphony. Here the third movement overflows with high spirits and raw energy, with the piccolo and triangle added to the performing forces for extra sizzle. The structure, though, is not that of a traditional scherzo with a contrasting middle section; in fact, this movement is in sonata form, and it includes material that prompted Hermann Kretschmar (writing in 1887) to note “its hastening, restless rhythms…its suddenly pulsing energy, and…the predominant harshness of its character.”

Brahms, a diligent student of musical history, was always ready to draw on the styles and forms of earlier ages. The final movement of the Fourth Symphony is the best-known such instance, and it is usually characterized as a passacaglia, with reference to Bach. Although the theme which recurs throughout is drawn from Bach’s Cantata No. 150, conductor and Baroque specialist Nikolaus Harnoncourt feels strongly that the form itself is more typical of the concluding movements in French operas from the Baroque era (especially Rameau). What is undeniable is the sense of cumulative power Brahms creates with his “old-fashioned” methods. The theme is repeated some 30 times, but the musical material is organized (texturally, dynamically, and above all emotionally) into a sonata-like structure: The extended opening section is followed by more relaxed (but still troubled) passages of a lyrical, yearning character (in which a solo flute is prominently featured). A renewed energy marks the beginning of a kind of development, culminating in three variations that recall the opening ones. The concluding pages of the Symphony are relentlessly charged with defiance and bristling with slashing intensity. For once, there is no coda. No triumph, no joy, no radiant string chords. The rest… is silence.

Dennis Bade is Associate Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.