An Historic Return
10/09/21 at 08:00pm
Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98
2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, percussion, strings
In his Fourth Symphony, Brahms’s answer to the conundrum of the classical tradition is synthesis. While he had never bothered to hide his indebtedness to Beethoven from the First Symphony onward, the Symphony in E minor embraces an even wider range of influences. As early as 1882, Brahms had been considering an orchestral expansion of the final movement of a cantata by J.S. Bach, Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich. (Brahms’s contemporaries were more sure of the attribution than we are now.) That the finale of the Fourth Symphony takes the form of a chaconne (the same as the ciaccona finale of the Bach cantata) indicates that he followed through on his intent in the summers of 1884 and 1885.
Other potential models seem to have worked their way in, however. The variations that pervade the first, second, and last movements of the work are a technique that was also prominent in Haydn’s keyboard music and the late sonata forms of Schubert. The third movement scherzo, on the other hand, bears a strong resemblance to Schumann’s “Spring” Symphony, particularly in the brightness of the orchestration and the giocoso mood. And while the bass line of the finale is very clearly borrowed from Bach, there are similarities to chaconnes by Dietrich Buxtehude and François Couperin.
The keys to the work, however, come with the very first sounds one hears in the symphony. A quiet sigh from the violins, falling by a minor third, is the musical interval that links each movement to the others in an organic whole. Notice that the woodwinds echo this minor third interval, even as the strings introduce a rising figure to counterbalance the sigh. Underneath, a chromatically rising bass line also foreshadows the chaconne bass line of the finale. The tension here between contours—the languishing lines that droop downward versus the searching gestures that still seek to climb upward—is really the only means of contrast in this sonata form. Brahms sticks with his interval of choice, rather than introduce a second theme of a different character. In addition, as he works through the development, he modulates to G minor instead of to the relative major, which might have provided a sense of harmonic relief. With this merger of developmental and variation procedures, Brahms puts his own spin on the motivic integration we see in many of Beethoven’s symphonies, including the Third and the Fifth.
The first five notes of the second movement fill in the minor third interval from the beginning of the first movement, this time moving upward first and then falling. Over the course of the Andante moderato, the rising version of the motivic cell predominates, lifting the character of the movement with it. Brahms also allows the music to lighten harmonically in the second movement, which lies somewhere between the Phrygian mode and C major. After a peaceful close on a Picardy third, the scherzo bursts forth and settles the harmonic ambiguity by moving decisively to C major.
The minor third is still a prominent interval melodically, but the Allegro giocoso is otherwise a strong contrast to the rest of the symphony in terms of timbre, harmony, and character. This is the closest to a classical symphonic movement that Brahms gives us, with the expected trio section that is lighter in texture and more melodic, featuring a pastoral horn solo. One could be forgiven for thinking we are heading toward a triumphal finale, particularly when the timpani sets up an insistent pedal tone toward the end of the movement. This gesture is borrowed from the transition to the C major finale of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, but Brahms refuses to complete the expected tragic-to-triumphant arc.
Brahms reasserts E minor as the tonality of the work immediately upon introducing the chaconne. First heard high up in the flutes and other woodwinds, the chaconne melody gradually drifts downward through the orchestral voices with each variation, eventually settling in the bass line where it “belongs” as the foundation of the movement's structure. All around the chaconne are numerous motives derived from the generative minor third interval that has persisted through the symphony. As this series of developing variations unfolds, Brahms eventually circles back to the first twelve variations, completing something like a recapitulation in a sonata form.
Brahms’s ability to skillfully combine different forms and counterpoint, while also making sure the symphony is grounded in a clearly recognizable idea—one that the listener can trace throughout—has ensured his own place in the canon. This place was not assured at the moment, however, with some criticizing the very harmonic and motivic choices that distinguish the symphony.
Fellow composer Hugo Wolf complained: “May Mr. Brahms be content to have found in his E minor symphony not only a tonality in which, heretofore, tolerable fare was produced only in smaller forms, but also the language giving most eloquent expression to his despondency: the language of the most intensive musical impotence.” This jab at Brahms’s creativity through the masculine metaphor of “impotence” reveals how toxic the genius myth could be, particularly in an era that saw the works of deceased composers from Beethoven back to Bach enshrined on concert programs, narrowing the space available to newer works. Even Eduard Hanslick, who defended Brahms and the Fourth Symphony, phrased his praise in terms of having surmounted an obstacle: “The symphony demands complete mastery; it is the composer’s severest test—and his highest calling.”