Brahms: Symphony No. 4

We are lucky that composers were brave enough to compose symphonies after the death of Beethoven. The nine works he created in that genre were intimidating enough that mere mention of the word “symphony” was grounds for a terminal case of writer’s block. It is fortunate that some composers possessed sufficiently large egos so that the symphonic form could go on, but it did take a few years. While Brahms is considered a master of every musical form of composition except Opera, which he never attempted, he completed only four symphonies over the space of a little less than decade near the end of his life. In fact, his First symphony, often jokingly referred to as “Beethoven's 10th,” took nearly 20 years to come to fruition, and was not completed until he was 43 years old. It was a daunting prospect, even for Brahms.

The Fourth, the last of his symphonies, was begun in the summer of 1884. Having completed his Third Symphony only one year earlier, this new symphony progressed rather quickly. And although Brahms routinely spent years engaged on his massively structured symphonic works, the Fourth was completed in just about a year. Brahms himself conducted the work's well received premiere on October 25, 1885, in Meiningen, a small German town situated on the Werra River.

Its reception in Vienna was somewhat less enthusiastic. Yet in time, the Viennese came to appreciate the work. The Fourth Symphony was included in a concert given on Brahms' sixty-fourth birthday, May 7, 1897. Though he was already fatally ill with liver cancer, he was able to stand and revel in the magnificent ovation and the audience's appreciation at the concert's conclusion. Within a month, Brahms passed away, his own Fourth Symphony having been the last symphony he ever heard.

The first movement of the symphony is in sonata-allegro form but Brahms has a great deal of fun extending and pushing the form into new directions that would have unexpectedly caught the ears of his audience. The main theme is a delightful one with its alternating descending thirds and ascending sixths. The second movement opens with a stately theme initiated by the horns and joined by the oboe. The composer’s use of the Phrygian mode points to the rather archaic quality of the music. The third movement is a lively scherzo movement overflowing with spirits and high energy. It is not written in as a traditional third-movement; it is not a scherzo and trio. Instead it is another sonata form. Brahms always loved the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and in the final movement of his symphony he pays tribute to him by creating a great chaconne based upon the passacaglia theme from the Cantata No. 150 (Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich). The movement , with it 30 repetitions of the chaconne melody is more like the final section of a French opera than it is the end of a German Romantic Symphony.

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