The very first people to hear or see any part of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony in 1885 had some surprisingly heretical things to say about the piece. Brahms and a friend played through the symphony on the piano to a group of his closest confidants, critics and collaborators, but the reaction was one of those devastatingly uncomfortable silences. Eduard Hanslick, Brahms’s critical champion, broke the uneasy atmosphere after the first movement with the unforgettable comment, “I feel I’ve just been beaten up by two terribly intelligent people”. As Brahms’s biographer Jan Swafford reveals, another friend, the writer Max Kalbeck, turned up at Brahms’s apartment the next day to recommend that the composer should not release the piece to the public in its current form. Instead, he suggested, he should keep the finale as a stand-alone piece, and replace both the slow movement and the scherzo. Riven by self-doubt, Brahms was unsure that he would allow the piece to have any life beyond its premiere in Meiningen that October. Only the work’s positive reception there, and the gradual, grudging change in his friends’ attitude to the piece at its Viennese premiere, convinced Brahms that the Fourth Symphony could survive.
That less-than-straightforward gestation seems hard to believe nowadays, when Brahms's Fourth Symphony is trotted out on concert programmes as a sure-fire way to put bums on seats, with its comfortingly familiar melodies and melancholy, its promise of satisfying symphonic coherence, and its apparently easy appeal to musicians, conductors and audiences. But I think those early commentators were on to something – not in terms of the work’s failure to live up to the promise of its three symphonic predecessors, but in the sense of the uncompromising intellectual complexity and refinement of this music, and its expressive implacability and even tragedy. You hear that above all in the final movement, the passacaglia, which ends with one of the bleakest minor-key cadences in symphonic music.
This is a symphony that ought to leave you intellectually battered and emotionally bruised rather than superficially consoled. So what’s bizarre is the idea that Brahms’s Fourth Symphony represents a nice night out at your local concert hall. This music is some of the darkest and deepest in the 19th century. What you’re hearing in it is an E minor nail in the coffin of the possibility of a symphonic happy ending. Jan Swafford goes even further, calling the piece “a funeral song for [Brahms’s] heritage, for a world at peace, for an Austro-German middle class that honored and understood music like no other culture, for the sweet Vienna he knew, for his own lost loves”; it’s a work that “narrates a progression from a troubling twilight to a dark night: fin de siècle”, instead of the “darkness to light” trajectories of so many minor-key 19th century symphonies, which end in a major key – think of Beethoven’s Fifth and Ninth, or all of Bruckner’s completed minor-key symphonies. And for the musicologist Reinhold Brinkmann, “The chorales in [Brahms’s] First and Third Symphonies resound with ‘hope,’ directly and positively ... With its negative ending, the Fourth Symphony denies this hope; it is the composed revocation of it.”
What’s astonishing about Brahms’s achievement in the Fourth Symphony is that this ferocity and concentration of expression is achieved not through a heightened emotional rhetoric, but through a relentless focus on supposedly “abstract” musical details. I’ll explain those quotation marks later, but to get a sense of the all-pervasive nature of Brahms’s musical thinking in this piece, you only have to hear - or re-hear - the very opening of the piece. That melody – criminally over-familiar to many of our ears today! – is built from a series of descending and ascending thirds, a favourite Brahmsian device, and a decidedly systematic approach to building a musical melody that he nonetheless turns into one of the most immediately attractive moments in his symphonic output. But it’s the construction that counts here, because that chain of thirds allows Brahms to outline the principal tonal areas of the symphony: there is an unusual emphasis in the melody on the flat-submediant of the E minor scale (C major), which is the home key of the third movement, it’s one of the tonal pivots of the slow movement, and it’s important in the finale too. But this melody also functions as a kind of generative DNA for the first movement’s - and the whole symphony’s - motivic drama. What I mean by that is the continuous meshing, churning and changing of musical ideas that Brahms creates, so that each line of music in the orchestral score functions as a cog in a symphonic machine. Arnold Schoenberg thought of this sort of compositional process – in which everything you hear can be understood as a transformation of a series of musical motives - as evidence of “Brahms the Progressive” (as he dubbed him in a famous essay): Brahms’s motivic manipulation is a kind of precursor of Schoenberg’s “composition with 12 tones”, his serialism. But for others, this technique is an all-too obvious sign of Brahms’s conscious cleverness. That’s what Hanslick meant about being beaten up by two intelligent people, and it’s precisely the idea that Thomas Adès sends up in his piece, Brahms, for baritone and orchestra, setting a poem by Alfred Brendel.
In Adès’s piece, those chains of thirds from the start of the Fourth Symphony descend into a kind of musical oblivion, obliterated by their own logic. But in a way, that’s exactly that Brahms himself does in the Fourth Symphony. Brahms takes his techniques to compositional extremes. So much so that, as the composer and conductor Gunther Schuller points out in his book The Compleat Conductor, there are passages in the first movement that create “a multi-layered structure of such complexity that I dare say there is nothing like it even in the Rite of Spring; one has to turn to Ives’s Fourth Symphony to find a parallel” – he means this place of teeming rhythmic and polyphonic intensity – and later, Schuller identifies “one of the more complex and motivically convoluted passages in all music”, in the first movement’s central section. Brahms’s music demands this kind of forensic attention to detail to reveal its full riches, but in the symphony as a whole, the brilliance of the piece is to carry you through its structure, whatever of its motivic felicities you consciously appreciate when you’re listening. What you can’t escape is that the expressive intensity that you hear in the Fourth Symphony is a direct result of the density of its compositional thinking. Listen to the way the second movement sounds its lonely modal introduction before relaxing into a chromatically inflected E major; or hear how the scherzo’s galumphing energy also continues the symphony’s motivic journey: at the climax of this most extrovert movement in Brahms’s symphonic canon, the widely and wildly-spaced notes prefigure the main melody of the finale.
The finale. Brahms’s symphonic passacaglia is when I can explain the meaning of those “abstract” quotation marks. This is one of the most tightly constructed movements ever composed, with 30 variations (and a concluding coda) on the melody you hear blazed out at the beginning in the brass and woodwind; that melody is part of the texture of every single succeeding variation, as the passacaglia form demands. But although it’s made from the highest watermark of musical arcana and compositional virtuosity, all that supposed “abstractness” means that the piece is actually an explosion of expressive meanings. The main melody is an expansion of a chaconne tune from Bach’s cantata 150 (a “chaconne”, like the one in Bach’s D Minor Partita for solo violin, is a similar form to a passacaglia), and Brahms’s use of a baroque method of construction is his homage to an era of musical history that this piece simultaneously honours and draws to a tragic conclusion. For me, the finale has the ineluctable power of a Greek drama: it’s a dark prophecy that’s fulfilled in that shattering final cadence. The journey from Brahms’s First Symphony to his Fourth is from optimism to pessimism, from the possibility of reshaping the world to a resignation at its essential melancholy. By 1885, in his early 50s but already somehow an old man, that was a historical trajectory that Brahms felt to be his own as well. Yet like all tragedies, the Fourth Symphony has a cathartic power – which is one explanation, at least, for the popularity of this despairing, troubling and astonishing symphony.
Five key recordings
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Kleiber: one of the most remarkable recordings, of all time, ever – listen and be gripped from first note to last.
Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique/ Gardiner: mind you, John Eliot Gardiner’s approach is just as powerful, from another world of insight and imagination on period instruments.
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/von Karajan: Brahms was – and is! – the Berliner’s composer; Karajan’s recording shows you why.
Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra/Chailly: Chailly’s approach fuses the Leipzigers' unique playing traditions with the lessons of recent scholarship; the result is white-hot imagination.
Berlin Philharmonic/Furtwängler: Furtwängler’s is one of the great revelations of interpretation as an act of re-creation – Brahms’s symphony is re-made in front of your ears.