Symphony No. 4 in E minor Op. 98 (1885)
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
- Allegro non troppo
- Andante moderato
- Allegro giocoso
- Allegro energico e passionato
Brahms and Wagner represented two opposing schools of late 19th century German music. Wagner was seen as the revolutionary and Brahms the conservative, particularly by Wagnerites. However, this view understates the originality of much of Brahms’ work.
Nowhere is this better illustrated than in his fourth symphony. Brahms was a great admirer of earlier composers, particularly Beethoven and Bach. Written at his summer retreat of Mürzzuschlag, near Vienna, the symphony embraces Beethoven’s harmonies whilst being full of Brahmsian originality. Brahms feared that this symphony was too deep for his audience. Even two friends who played through a piano-four-hands version were mystified. However, the premiere was a major success, with the audience applauding each movement and calling for the third to be encored. After most of the audience left, the first and third movements were encored for the Duke of Meiningen and guests, this time with Brahms conducting.
The first movement embodies the technique of “developing variation”, the foundation of musical modernism in the 20th century. The opening wistful main theme is progressively developed from a sigh of regret to the resolve of the final climactic chords. The horn call that opens the second movement forms the basis for a prolonged development by the woodwinds before the strings imbue a heartfelt Brahmsian warmth. The humorous third movement, featuring piccolo and triangle, is reminiscent of a Beethoven scherzo movement, except that it is not in the usual triple time. After this upbeat movement, the opening chords of the finale come as a shock. They are in fact the theme of a passacaglia, a theme and variations form from the baroque, famously used by Bach. Brahms crafts no fewer than 32 variations of stunning complexity and power before the dramatic coda.
Performed: 8 & 15 September 2019