Johannes Brahms was born in the Free City of Hamburg on May 7, 1833, and died in Vienna on April 3, 1897. Brahms’s first mention of the Fourth Symphony is in a letter of August 19, 1884, to his publisher, Fritz Simrock. The work must have been completed about a year later at Mürzzuschlag, and in October 1885 Brahms gave a two-piano reading of it in Vienna with Ignaz Brüll for a small group of friends. Brahms conducted the first orchestral performance at Meiningen on October 25, 1885. The North American premiere was conducted by Walter Damrosch with the New York Symphony on December 11, 1886. Alfred Hertz led the first San Francisco Symphony performances in January 1917. The work was last performed here in March 2009 under the direction of Nicola Luisotti. The symphony is scored for two flutes and piccolo, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, triangle, and strings. Piccolo and triangle appear in the third movement only, contrabassoon in the third and fourth movements only, and trombones only in the finale. Performance time: about forty minutes.
Brahms was forty-two when his First Symphony was introduced. No longer young, he was anything but old, not even by the standards of 1876. Yet composers before him had tackled symphony-writing much earlier—composers such as Haydn and Mozart and Beethoven and Mendelssohn and Schumann, who had already contributed so much to the repertory and whose music would continue to live, evolving into a Great Tradition in which Brahms saw a role for himself.
Brahms had been an early bloomer, too. He was barely out of his teens when Robert Schumann introduced him to the music world in an essay titled “New Paths,” published in Europe’s most influential music journal, the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik. Brahms, Schumann announced, was “the one . . . chosen to express the most exalted spirit of the times in an ideal manner, one who [sprang] fully armed from the head of Jove . . . [a] youth at whose cradle the graces and heroes of old stood guard.” The young composer was famous as soon as the papers hit the newsstands. The pressure was on, and it all but stopped Brahms before he could navigate toward larger-scale compositions than the piano works that had so excited Schumann.
Part of the problem was that Brahms was a brutal self-critic. We know little about his working methods because he destroyed his sketches, but clearly he was no Schubert—someone who could sit at a coffee-house table and in fifteen minutes scribble a great song on a napkin. Brahms honed his material until he was satisfied, and he held himself to tough standards. Ultimately, through the fusion of hard work, reflection, and inspiration that makes for genius, Brahms recovered from Schumann’s prophecy and fulfilled his promise in songs and piano music and chamber works and choruses. He acquainted himself with the orchestra, too. He was still in his twenties when he published his first two orchestral serenades and his Piano Concerto No. 1; he was in his early thirties when the German Requiem appeared. A symphony, however, was a different animal.
He claimed to be intimidated by Beethoven. “You have no idea what it’s like to hear the footsteps of a giant like that behind you,” he said, those footsteps resonating through his psyche, making him question if he could ever do anything on a par with the author of nine symphonies that seemed to define the limits of what music could express. Maybe. But Brahms rarely came clean about anything, and when he appeared to reveal himself, he could have been trying to cover his own footsteps or steer the conversation in a different direction. He was a private man. The reasons he wasn’t producing were his concern, no one else’s; so the best answer to those who wanted to know more was a response as glib as a sound bite, defusing further talk on the subject.
If you have ever engaged a builder for a construction or remodeling job, you understand that a word such as “completion” has no fixed definition or date. In making his First Symphony, Brahms went about his business the same way, getting the lines plumb, tearing out fixtures whose position he had miscalculated, waiting for material that suddenly was on back-order. But then the First Symphony was finished. Convinced now that he had what it took, Brahms wrote a Second Symphony just a year later. His last two symphonies are another pair, the Third receiving its first performance in 1883 and the Fourth in 1885. The composer was fifty-two and starting to think of retirement. The first movement of his G major String Quintet is said to have started as a sketch for a fifth symphony, yet perhaps Brahms understood that, with his Fourth, he had gone as far as he could go in the genre that had taken him so long to conquer and of which he was now so clearly a master.
The Brahms Fourth is at once a summation of its author’s learning and technique, and a work of art that for all its complexities cuts as close to the heart of the heart as music can. One imagines that this is the work Brahms always wanted to write, the work that displays his essence most completely, in which form and function are balanced, in which the technical means always serve expression and expression is discovered through technique. If any of Brahms’s music conveys a world-view, this is it.
Listen to the first sighs in the strings. A decade later, in the third of his Four Serious Songs, Brahms would use a variant of those sighs to set the words “Oh Death, oh Death.” (In the song, the singer’s address to Death continues with the words, “How bitter you are.”) Here, in the symphony, the voice is at once resigned and searching. Its broad phrases are transformed for a moment into a nervous figure in the winds before growing into a lament of deep longing. Throughout this movement, the nervous and the keening will alternate, and they fuse in the odd episode that sounds as though Brahms had entered the world of the tango, where dance steps offer a staccato accompaniment to long stretching lines. By the end of the movement, all this has changed. A chapter that began with music saturated in regret has taken on resolve. The broad searching phrases of the opening bars are compressed into projectiles of energy, gathering momentum until they erupt in a cataclysmic climax and a brief, unyielding denouement.
The summons of a horn call begins the Andante moderato, outlining a figure that the winds take up, a pacing, tentative melody of closely spaced intervals, a melody that cannot range far from where it starts—we are still recovering from the upheaval in which the first movement ended. Soon, however, the possibilities of warmth in this theme are revealed, and high strings enter to transform tentatively ventured steps into a flow of confident forward movement. Staccato bursts end this, but their energy dissipates quickly, and in their place comes one of Brahms’s most miraculously expansive creations. Even when those staccato jabs are later reprised in a more tortured form, the answer is the same. The opening movement was tragedy on an epic scale. The second movement is the response, offered in more human proportions. Look ahead once more to the Four Serious Songs, where Brahms makes explicit what he suggests here. His setting of the final song in that cycle bears no overt relation to this andante, but the words he sets there, from Saint Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, could be this movement’s motto: “aber die Liebe ist die grösste unter ihnen”—but love is the greatest of them (greater, as Paul says, than faith and hope)—words that, concluding the song, are set to the first expanse of long, comforting, major-mode melody Brahms allows himself in the cycle, acting just as the great song at the center of this andante does: as a calmative to the stunned and anguished music that precedes it.
The aggressively upbeat scherzo seems initially out of place, given what comes immediately before and after, and yet it is utterly apt. We need some relief from the unremitting seriousness of the first two movements, and here Brahms supplies it. His humor has a crueler side. For this jubilant music will be followed by what, in 1885, was the most uncompromising, pessimistic conclusion ever heard in a symphony.
In his first two symphonies, Brahms had followed Beethoven’s model, ending each of those works in the affirmative. In his Third Symphony, he made a novel ending, choosing to finish in quiet resignation. Remember that this was a man who had spent the first part of his career wrestling with symphonic form and pondering his place in the tradition. By the time of his Third Symphony he was already adapting the form to his own ends. Having made that foray into shaping a symphony into a genuinely personal statement, he went even farther in the Fourth—farther than anyone since Beethoven. Here, in the finale, he wrote music not simply personal and not simply contemporary, but music that looked into the future, toward a century that would validate his apprehensions.
The irony is that Brahms’s vehicle for conveying this vision was an ancient musical form. Brahms the traditionalist was fascinated with the music of Bach and Handel. In his studies of the Baroque he familiarized himself with forms such as the passacaglia, a set of variations over a recurrent bass. He was especially taken with one he found in a cantata listed in the Bach catalogue as No. 150, a cantata whose very title lends meaning to this movement of the symphony, Nach Dir, Herr, verlanget mich—“I long to be near you, Lord.” Brahms was no conventional churchgoer, and though he may not have defined any single essence as a divinity, he had a sense of powers beyond the human. On the theme from Nach Dir, Herr—the eight chords that begin the finale—he builds his case: thirty-two variations that define a world. This music is not easy to follow. For an audience of 1885, expecting clearly recognizable forms that would recur in recognizable ways, it must have been all but impossible to grasp. But this is only an apparent obstacle. For what Brahms offers is a constantly evolving drama, one that wastes no time covering ground already explored but that continues its explorations ever more deeply. There is no happy ending here—in fact, the end comes almost before we know it is upon us. As in life. And if we never know whether Brahms nears his “Lord,” whoever or whatever that might be, the answer is not important. The road to understanding is filled with detours and washed-out bridges, and we only hope we can negotiate the obstacles with grace. We may discard schedules and itineraries, but we don’t quite abandon the conviction that one day we may arrive at the destination. As we head there, we can be grateful for a traveling companion like Johannes Brahms.
More About the Music
Recordings: Jaap van Zweden conducting the Netherlands Philharmonic (Brilliant Classics) | Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic (Sony) | Carlos Kleiber conducting the Vienna Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon Originals) | George Szell conducting the Cleveland Orchestra (Sony Essential Classics) | Charles Mackerras conducting the Scottish Chamber Orchestra (a “historically informed” performance, on Telarc)
Reading: Brahms, by Malcolm Macdonald (Oxford University Press) | Johannes Brahms: A Biography, by Jan Swafford (Vintage) | Johannes Brahms: Life and Letters, a collection of correspondence translated and edited by Styra Avins and Josef Eisinger (Oxford University Press) | A Brahms Reader, by Michael Musgrave (Yale University Press) | Brahms, His Life and Work, by Karl Geiringer (Da Capo) | “Encountering Brahms,” by Larry Rothe, in For the Love of Music, by Michael Steinberg and Rothe (Oxford University Press)