Though he may now be considered one of the great masters of the Romantic symphony, Johannes Brahms (1833-97) wrote surprisingly little in the genre. His earliest efforts as a symphonist resulted eventually in the Piano Concerto No. 1; he fussed over his first real symphony for fifteen years, completing it in 1876 when he was well into his forties; and after completing his Fourth Symphony in 1885 (not even ten years later!), he never wrote another. During the last decade of his life, Brahms wrote increasingly intimate works for chamber ensemble, solo voice, and keyboard - pieces treasured by lovers of his music - but it does lead one to wonder what might have become of Brahms's Fifth Symphony. Alas, we have to enjoy his Symphony No. 4 in E minor while knowing it was his last.
What did music lovers of Brahms's time think of it? One critic declared that a four-hand piano arrangement of the work gave him "the feeling that two enormously clever people were cudgeling one another." Many of the composer's contemporaries took a similar first impression of this symphony, a reaction of shock and incomprehension; and this included not only the followers of Wagner (who could never condemn Brahms enough), but even many of his friends. Nevertheless Clara Schumann wrote that the Fourth "created a beautiful hour for me, captivating me through its richness in colour and its beauty otherwise." Joseph Joachim, who conducted an 1886 performance of the piece (Brahms himself having conducted the premiere) wrote: "The gripping character of the whole, the density of invention, the wonderfully intertwined growth of the motifs, even more than the richness and the beauty of single parts, I like very much, so that I almost believe the E minor is my favorite among the four symphonies."
Movement I begins at a whisper, its opening theme entering so suddenly and gently that a first-time hearer might be surprised to find it already in progress. Though this sonata movement has the traditional two themes, both themes are based on the same motive: the interval of a falling third, or its alter ego, the rising sixth. The first theme is built out of two-note sighs in the violins, each one echoed in a contrasting rhythm by the woodwinds. The more dramatic second theme - a reversal of the sonata-form convention of making the first theme more assertive than the second - is introduced by the woodwinds in unison. A wealth of contrasting moods and ideas spin out of this material, building to a strident climax before a soft codetta based on the opening theme.
After cleverly feinting at a repeat of the exposition, Brahms veers into a development section. First he teases the opening theme apart and reweaves it in a brusque, contrapuntal texture. Then, he muses over fragments of the second theme, at first softly and mysteriously, then violently. A fresh elaboration of the first theme grows out of this, dying away to a super-soft, fragmentary dialogue between woodwinds and strings. The development section concludes with a moment of low-key poignancy in which Brahms seems to hesitate, reluctant to go on to the recapitulation. This he finally does, reviewing the wealth of material we last heard before the development, and cauterizing the end with a long, fiery coda.
Movement II, "Andante moderato," opens with a horn-call with hints of archaic modes. Brahms then puts this musical idea through numerous transformations. Even what seems, to the inattentive ear, to be contrasting material is really based on this horn call - including a cello theme that seems to embrace you with romantic devotion. After softly returning to the opening theme, Brahms subjects it to a dramatic, sonata-like development. Then the cello theme comes back for its own reworking, rising to a peak of passion before giving way to a mood of uncertainty which only the final return of the horn call can dispel.
Movement III, "Allegro giocoso," written later than the other movements, shows Brahms in a most uncharacteristically bright and humorous mood. The levity includes loud fanfares that attack by surprise, a hearty theme that flips itself upside down, a secondary theme of almost flippant lightness, and the tinkling of a triangle (used only in this movement). Even so there are passages of relatively serious character and techniques, such as counterpoint and thematic development. A slower passange in the middle creates a contrastingly restful moment. The movement concludes in excited jubilation.
For his finale, Brahms ingeniously transforms the eighteenth-century musical form called chaconne - variations on a continuously repeated bass pattern - into a final summation of all his symphonic artistry. Over 32 variations on that initial theme (inspired by a passacaglia in one of J. S. Bach's cantatas) Brahms superimposes something recognizably akin to sonata form. At the same time, he groups his variations into groups like the four movements of a symphony: the opening strong variations, followed by slower and more softly poignant ones, then a contrasting set full of a scherzo's wild rhythmic energy, followed by an amplified return of the opening and a triumphant conclusion.
According to no less an expert than Arnold Schoenberg, the opening motive of the first movement is subtly woven into the end of this movement. His admiration shows that this symphony has a lot more going for it than pure, romantic lushness. It is a tour-de-force of a musician's structural imagination, looking back to the beloved composers of the past (Brahms especially admired Bach, Mozart, and Haydn), employing sophisticated thematic and contrapuntal techniques, and combining new and old forms in a forward-looking way. But don't let that scare you off. Listen for yourself and see if Brahms's last symphony doesn't fascinate you with its mysteries, thrill you with its drama, touch you with its gentle spirit, and delight you with its sense of humor. See if, after all, you don't find it beautiful, powerful, and capable of sparking challenging new thoughts in your mind!
IMAGES: Two photos of Brahms (that product placement must be worth something!); the opening page of the autograph score of the Fourth Symphony; an instrument that figures prominently in the third movement.
EDIT: Here is a video of Carlos Kleiber and the Bavarian State Orchestra performing the finale of Brahms's Fourth.