Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

Symphony No. 4 in E minor op.98

Composed during the summers of 1884-85 at Mürzzuschlag

First Performance: Oct 25, 1885 with the composer conducting the Meiningen Orchestra

Instrumentation:  two flutes (one doubling on piccolo), two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, a contrabassoon, four French horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, triangle, and strings (violins, violas, cellos and double basses).


Two musical political camps emerged in the mid 19th century. Liszt, influenced by Berlioz, headed the Neudeutsche Schule which attracted many minor composers as well as Richard Wagner. This school espoused the idea that nothing new was possible through classical form. Instead, they promoted the idea of program music where extra-musical ideas were the inspiration.  As the school’s “leader,” Liszt provided many programmatic works including piano pieces and a dozen symphonic poems.  Well known examples of these works are Les Préludes, based on Alphonse de Lamartine, the Faust Symphony, and the Symphony on Dante’s Commedia.

In contrast, Brahms’ music embraced classical – and older – forms and techniques. His symphonies each had four movements with polyphony in the outer movements, the inner movements being slow and scherzo-like. In his instrumentation he used the classical orchestra rather than the sometimes overblown resources needed by the so called progressives.

From a young age Brahms showed an interest in early music, when he began collecting manuscripts, scores, and treatises, which he continued doing throughout his life. This interest was not common in his time where most composers rarely looked at music before Beethoven.

When Hans von Bülow was appointed conductor at the Meiningen court, he took  an interest in Brahms’ orchestral work, inviting Brahms to use the court orchestra as a “rehearsal orchestra”. Brahms gladly took him up on his offer. It was with this orchestra that Brahms conducted the premiere performance of the Fourth Symphony.

Always careful in new territory, Brahms labored for years to produce his first symphony. His earlier orchestral works such as the Haydn Variations are sometimes viewed as preparation for his leap into this larger form. Once this First Symphony was finished the final three came relatively quickly.  In the Fourth Symphony, Brahms looks to the past beyond Beethoven. In this his final symphony Brahms integrates medieval church modes, Baroque variations, Classical sonata forms with romantic passion.

First Movement

In contrast to Brahms’ previous symphonies, the first movement leaps into the main idea without an introduction. Actually Brahms did prepend a short introduction but later decided against it.

Example 6

With octave displacement, this opening becomes a series of descending thirds.

Example 7

Actually this series of descending thirds is immediately followed – again via octave displacement – by a series of ascending thirds. This is one of the unifying devices that pervade the entire symphony.

Example 8

This sequence of thirds is followed by two additional short motifs that are developed throughout the movement. The second motif is primarily melodic but with a repeated rhythmic pattern.

Example 9

The third motif is primarily rhythmic but the thirds from the initial theme are in evidence.

Example 10

This opening movement is written in a Sonata form without repeated exposition. Actually it appears for a moment that the exposition is indeed repeating but a few measures in it becomes clear that we are into the development section. The lyrical second theme introduced by the ‘celli:

Example 11

The recapitulation does not begin with a bold forte announcement of the first themes. Instead it sneaks in very softly with the initial theme first in the woodwinds. The strings seem to not pay attention to them for several moments until they start to toss the themes from one to another. We are treated to a gradual thickening of texture and volume until we do indeed get a grand tutti restatement to close the movement.

Second Movement: Andante Moderato

The young Richard Strauss who was then assistant conductor at Meinengen described this movement as “A funeral procession moving across moonlit heights.”[1]

The opening in the ancient Phrygian church mode (E to E on the piano’s white keys) recalls the thirds from the initial theme of the first movement by outlining a rising third followed by a descending third. At the same time it looks forward to the exuberant C major opening of the third movement.

Example 12

This theme is almost immediately repeated in E major. Throughout the movement it is developed and is tossed from one instrument to another. As in the slow movements of his second and third symphonies, this is an adapted sonata form. In this movement it almost appears to be a theme and variations. Another fanfare-like triplet motif announces a transition to a lyrical second theme in the ‘celli.

The horns present the initial fanfare once more before a final struggle between Phrygian and E major. The movement dies away recalling this duality with an arpeggiated “Neapolitan” chord (F major) resolving to E major.

Third Movement: Allegro Giocoso

At first glance the raucous third movement seems out of place to the other more somber movements. But once again there are thematic and harmonic connections. The Phrygian gloom of the second movement is dispelled with an energetic C major theme.  Brahms makes the final chord of the first phrase stand out by placing it over an octave lower than its neighbors and by marking it to be played very loudly and forcefully (forte forzando). This is not for mere effect because it actually is a highly compressed foreshadowing of the chaconne theme of the fourth movement.

Example 13

This compression is gradually released until the coda where the chaconne theme (with octave displacement) is more fully revealed.

Example 14

Fourth Movement: Allegro Energico e passionato

The very famous last movement of Brahms’ last symphony is a theme followed by an incredible thirty variations. It is a special kind of theme and variations used in the Baroque era called a chaconne or passacaglia. Well known examples are Purcell’s Dido’s Lament and J.S. Bach’s Chaconne in Dm for solo violin. The distinction between these two terms is surprisingly elusive. Brahms himself used the term Chaconne for this movement whereas Arnold Schoenberg described it as a passacaglia.  Brahms previously experimented with the chaconne in his Haydn Variations. The theme or chaconne subject Brahms uses is an alteration of the final movement of J. S. Bach’s Cantata 150 “Nach dir,Herr,verlanget mich.”

Example 15

In a conversation with friends Bülow and Ochs, several years before the composition of the symphony, Brahms referred to Bach’s chaconne subject “but it is too clumsy, too straightforward. One must alter it chromatically in some way.“

The opening of the fourth movement introduces Brahms’ subject – indeed altered chromatically – in the flutes, oboes and trombones, utilizing the trombones for the first time in the symphony.

Example 16

Towards the end of the movement the relationship between the chaconne subject and the initial series of descending thirds from the opening of the first movement is revealed.  The first note of each measure outlines the chaconne subject.

Example 17

And so in our first concert of the season we have heard excellent examples representing both sides of the absolute vs. program music camps and a third that straddles both. Don Juan shows how the poetic idea can be portrayed in music. Brahms worked with no extra-musical materials and produced a no less compelling work. Dohnányi used a well known melody to create somewhat of a parody, by using styles and techniques from both camps, in a way that perhaps recalls Dvořák’s place in music history. [the encore for this concert was a short piece by Dvořák]

[1] Geiringer: Brahms: His Life And Work