Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98 (1885)

By Walter Frisch, Columbia University

Written for the concert Focus on a Masterwork: Brahms’s Fourth Symphony performed on April 30, 1993 at Carnegie Hall. 

Especially in its formidable E-minor outer movements, Brahms’s Fourth Symphony presents a gruff exterior to its listeners. As such, it has never been as popular with the general public as the first two symphonies (or even perhaps the understated, underperformed Third). Even as he was completing the piece in the summer of 1885 in the resort town of Murzzuschlag southwest of Vienna, Brahms himself seems to have anticipated its reception. Writing at the beginning of September to ask if Hans von Bülow might make his renowned court orchestra of Meiningen available for the premiere (which Bülow of course eagerly did), Brahms wondered whether the work would find a wider public: “I am really afraid that its taste will be affected by the climate here: the cherries never ripen here, and you wouldn’t eat them!”

Shortly before this, Brahms had sent the first movement off to his trusted musical confidante, Elisabet von Herzogenberg, who normally gushed very perceptively about each new Brahms work she received. In this case, however, an initial enthusiasm led to some doubts about the symphony’s accessibility. After analyzing some of the movement’s intricate structural features, she confessed, “I have the feeling that this work of your brain is designed too much with a view to microscopic inspection, just as if its beauties were not there for every simple music-lover to see.” “The symphony is too cerebral”, Elisabeth said; “it makes the listener or score reader work too hard: We feel we should like to fold our hands and shut our eyes and be stupid for once, leaning on the composer to rest, instead of his driving us so relentlessly afield.”

Brahms’s immediate circle in Vienna seems to have had a similar reaction. In early October, an august group assembled informally to hear Brahms and another composer, Ignaz Brüll, play through the two-piano arrangement (to be heard on tonight’s program). On this occasion Eduard Hanslick and Hans Richter, respectively the most eminent critic and conductor in Vienna, were the page-turners; among the listeners were the surgeon Theodor Billroth, the critic Gustav Dimpke, and the musicologist C. F. Pohl. The scene was described by Brahms’s biographer Max Kalbeck:

After the wonderful Allegro.. .I expected that one of those present would break out at least in a loud “Bravo.” wouldn’t allow my humble self to upstage in that way the master’s older and more competent friends. Richter murmured something into his blond beard that from afar could be taken as an expression of approval. Brüll cleared his throat and slid diffidently and embarrassedly back and forth on his piano stool. The others remained persistently silent, and since Brahms also said nothing, a rather painful silence prevailed. Finally Brahms grumbled, “So, let’s go on!” and gave a sign to continue; whereupon Hanslick heaved a sigh and quickly exploded, as if he had to relieve his mind and yet feared speaking too late: “For the whole movement I had the feeling that I was being given a beating by two incredibly intelligent people.” Everyone laughed, and the two players continued.

Despite all the hemming and hawing among Brahms’s initiates, the premiere of the Fourth at Meiningen on October 25, as well as most of its subsequent performances around Germany in the winter of 1885-86 were a great success for the already revered composer. But the fact remains that the Fourth is not a work that unlocks its secrets easily; it is not a work, like the Second, whose sensuous beauty beckons listeners inside. In his last symphony, Brahms seems indeed to be writing precisely for the kind of cultivated, musically literate listener whose disappearance at the end of the nineteenth century he sorely regretted.

In its instrumentation, in its basic outline of four movements in the order fast-slow-scherzo-finale, and in other outward respects, the Fourth has the trappings of a conventional classic-romantic symphony in the mold of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven (before the Ninth), Schubert, and Schumann. But inside the walls, so to speak, the Fourth captures better than any work of Brahms a profoundly original dialectic lying at the center of his musical language. Nowhere is the creative tension between past and future, between tradition and innovation, more apparent than in this remarkable symphony.

The basic theme of the first movement, for example, is one of the most proleptic of the nineteenth century. It is built almost entirely from a chain of descending thirds (the notes B-G-E-C-A-F-d-sharp-B), which are, however, cast into the form of a lyrical melody. It is not surprising that this piece was roundly attacked by Hugo Wolf, the composer who was active as a critic in Vienna at the time of the symphony’s premiere, and who fumed that in the Fourth Brahms “has mastered the art of composing without ideas.” What the arch-romantic Wolf saw as lack of invention or inspiration was later seen as a virtue by one of the first modernists, Arnold Schoenberg; in his famous essay “Brahms the Progressive.”

Schoenberg openly admired Brahms’ss ability in the Fourth to build an entire melody from the replication of a single interval. In this, Brahms anticipated the stripped-down motivic economy of much twentieth-century music, including Schoenberg’s own.

The dual or Janus-like nature of the Fourth is most apparent in the famous finale, for which Brahms reaches back well past his classical forebears to the distant baroque period. This movement, fully late romantic in its harmonic language and in its means of thematic development, is cast in the ancient form of a passacaglia, or a set of thirty variations on a terse theme. As in the baroque form-and unlike its classical-romantic variations-the theme is not varied as a melody, but is rather a constant presence (or “ostinato”) in some part of the texture. The basic impulses of economy and restriction manifested by Brahms in this movement are much the same as in the single-interval theme of the first movement, which is in fact combined with the passacaglia theme at the end of the finale.

No composer before Brahms had thought to revive this archaic form in a symphonic work, although he himself had done this already in his Haydn Variations of 1873, whose finale is also a passacaglia. But in the Fourth, as with so much of his work, Brahms’s method was to have an impact on later composers. In 1897, the year of Brahms’s death, Alexander von Zemlinsky, a leading young Viennese composer and the teacher of Schoenberg, included a passacaglia as the finale of his own Symphony in B-flat. Just over a decade later, in 1908, Anton Webern would write an orchestral passacaglia as his op. 1, effectively his graduation piece from his own study with Schoenberg. Schoenberg’s other famous pupil, Alban Berg, took up the same form (treated more freely) in an atonal context in the last of his Orchestral Songs, op. 5, of 1912. The teacher of Berg and Webern himself began work on a twelve-tone Passacaglia for Orchestra in 1926; it remained incomplete, but evolved into the magnificent Variations for Orchestra op. 31.

Each of these works is directly indebted to the finale of Brahms’s Fourth. In each, the composers seek, like Brahms, to create a large, varied structure within severe self-imposed formal restraints. This aspect of Brahms’s work, his rather ascetic ideal of making the most out of the least, may have angered Hugo Wolf; but it was Brahms’s greatest legacy to the music of our century.