I shall never write a symphony!
Brahms famously declared in 1872. “You can’t have any idea what it’s like to hear such a giant marching behind you.” The giant was Beethoven, of course, and although his music provided essential inspiration for Brahms, it also set such a high standard that the younger composer found it easy to discount his own creations as negligible in comparison.
Four more years passed before Brahms would finally sign off on his First Symphony. But once he had conquered his compositional demons he moved ahead forcefully. Three symphonies followed that first effort in relatively short order: the Second in 1877, the Third in 1882–83, and the Fourth in 1884–85. Each is a masterpiece and each displays a markedly different character. The First is burly and powerful, flexing its muscles in Promethean exertion; the Second is sunny and bucolic; and the Third, while introspective and idyllic on the whole, mixes in a hefty dose of heroism. With his Symphony No.4, Brahms achieves a work of almost mystical transcendence born of opposing emotions: melancholy and joy, severity and rhapsody, solemnity and exhilaration.
Clara Schumann recognized this play of duality already in the first movement, observing
It is as though one lay in springtime among the blossoming flowers,
and joy and sorrow filled one’s soul in turn.
Brahms was well aware of his distinct achievement in this work. He composed it during two summer vacations at Mürzzuschlag in the Styrian Alps — the first two movements in the summer of 1884, the second two in the summer of 1885. On many occasions he was known to suggest that his compositions reflected the places in which they were written, and in this case he wrote from Mürzzuschlag to the conductor Hans von Bülow that his symphony-in-progress “tastes of the climate here; the cherries are hardly sweet here — you wouldn’t eat them!” Brahms was given to disparaging his works—in fact, he once described this symphony as “another set of polkas and waltzes” — but in this case he perfectly evoked the bittersweet quality that pervades many of the Fourth Symphony’s pages.
Although it is cast in the same classical four-movement plan as his earlier symphonies, Brahms’ Fourth seems more tightly unified throughout its duration (largely through repeated insistence on the interval of the third, especially the minor third), and its movements accordingly proceed with a sense of cumulative power. The opening movement (Allegro non troppo) is soaring and intense, and the second (Andante moderato) is by turns agitated and serene. The Allegro giocoso represents the first time Brahms included a real scherzo in a symphony, quite a contrast to the lighter, even wistful allegretto intermezzos that had served as the third movements of his first three. And for his finale, Brahms unleashes a gigantic passacaglia, a neo-Baroque structure in which an eight-measure progression (here derived from the last movement of Bach’s Cantata No. 150) is subjected to 32 variations of widely varying character.
As soon as he completed the work, Brahms sent copies to several of his trusted friends and was miffed when they all responded with concern over this or that. His confidante Elisabet von Herzogenberg insisted that she respected the piece, but she allowed of the first movement that “at worst it seems to me as if a great master had made an almost extravagant display of his skill!” His friend Max Kalbeck suggested Brahms throw away the third movement entirely, use the finale as a free-standing piece, and compose two new movements to replace them. The composer did not cave in, but he anticipated the symphony’s premiere with mounting apprehension. His music had long been criticized as “too intellectual,” and Brahms knew that his Fourth Symphony was at least as rigorous as anything he had previously composed. To his amazement, the symphony proved a success at its premiere and audience enthusiasm only increased in subsequent performances.
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