Programme notes

Symphony No 4 in E minor, Op 98, Johannes Brahms (1833—1897)

1 Allegro non troppo (E minor) 2 Andante moderato (E major) 3 Allegro giocoso (C major) 4 Allegro energico e passionate (E minor)

Johannes Brahms was born in 1833 to a musical father who was his first teacher. The boy was a proficient musician by the time he was seven, and already keen on composing at a young age. So keen, in fact that his teacher, the distinguished Otto Cossel, complained in 1842 that Brahms 'could be such a good player, but he will not stop his never-ending composing'. It is one of the curious facts about Brahms that he later destroyed as much of his early music as he could find; even as late as 1880 he wrote to a friend to return manuscripts of his choral music so that they too could be destroyed.

Perhaps his self-confidence was damaged when early enthusiasm for this 20-year old musical genius—he was hailed as ‘Beethoven’s true heir’—collided with the hostile supporters of the ‘New German School’ of Liszt and Wagner, who hissed his music. It perhaps didn’t help that his behaviour with people was distinctly variable. To children and friends he was warm, loyal, generous and lovable; but to other adults he was often brusque and sarcastic, and gained the reputation of being grumpy.

Beethoven’s nine symphonies towered over music as the Himalayas of achievement, and Brahms took some time before he tackled the challenge. His First Symphony in C minor (1876) took him more than twenty years to write, and was perhaps modelled on Beethoven’s Fifth with its four note opening—the sound, Beethoven is supposed to have said, that represented fate knocking on the door. But Brahms’s Fourth and final symphony, completed in 1885, took music to a different place.

The symphony opens not with a four-note figure, but with an even shorter two-note one, a falling third which the movement explores with technical brilliance. Brahms’s work shows us not fate pounding on the door but a far more complex tapestry of wistfulness, uncertainty, perhaps conflict. Beethoven defied fate, with his music declaiming the forceful ‘Ja! Es muss sein’ (Yes, it must be so) and always reaching triumphant resolution, but Brahms tells us a very different story.

His symphony, a critic remarked, rejects the possibility of a happy ending. Maybe; yet the third movement, featuring, unusually for Brahms, a merry triangle, is joyful and exciting. The final movement begins with an 8-bar phrase that is repeated throughout, observing the required formal repetitive pattern of the passacaglia, and presents the listener with thirty variations on the phrase you first hear sung out by the brass and woodwind; and every succeeding variation includes that phrase, as the passacaglia form demands.

A modern critic reads the symphony as 'a funeral song for a world … that honoured and understood music like no other culture, for the sweet Vienna he knew, for his own lost loves.' At the time many admired the symphony greatly, including Richard Strauss, who wrote that it was 'a giant work, great in concept and invention', and it has always remained popular. It’s clear that there is dark and light, alternating sombre shade with sunlight, as our conductor Colin Touchin has remarked. Brahms’s Fourth Symphony remains a much-loved part of the modern concert programme.

Mike Torbe

© Copyright. All rights reserved