1884: Brahms: Symphony No. 4 in E minor

THURSDAY, November 5, 2020 – 8:29 AM

(This is one of the true landmarks in the history of symphonic composing. It’s the last of Brahms’ four symphonies. The last movement is a series of variations on a theme that is much like a simple bass line.)

Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Age 51

The Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98 by Johannes Brahms is the last of his symphonies. Brahms began working on the piece in Mürzzuschlag, then in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in 1884, just a year after completing his Symphony No. 3. It was premiered on October 25, 1885 in Meiningen, Germany.

Start here:

If you do not know this symphony, and you are not sure you are interested in it, start with the 3rd movement, below. It’s one of those amazing movements that works in its own, and only the snobbery of “serious music lovers” keeps it from being a stand alone piece used for an encore:

III. Allegro giocoso (C major)

Instrumentation:

  • two flutes (one doubling on piccolo on third movement only), two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, contrabassoon (third and fourth movements)
  • four horns, two trumpets, three trombones (fourth movement only)
  • timpani (two in first and second movements, three in third and fourth movements), triangle (third movement only)
  • strings

Andrés Orozco-Estrada

Carlos Kleiber

1st movement

The expo does not repeat, and I should know that. Apparently Brahms felt that his expo was so long and complicated that he went right into the development section.Since the expo is more than 4 minutes long, a repeat would extend the time and lead to a 1st movement that is more than 17 minutes long, and that might overbalance the rest of the symphony.

This is heavy music. There is nothing light-hearted or sunny about this. It is ominous, threatening and menacing in a very tonal way. The reason is probably because of the dominance of minor. Whenever something starts and ends in minor, the impression is of tragedy, sadness, obstacles and it has a pessimistic feeling. Trying to put a name to minor, or describe what we feel when we hear it may be a “bridge too far”, but many people have confirmed that they also hear music this way.

2nd movement

There is an absolute mood change here. Most always when a 1st movement is predominantly in minor, the slow movement is in major, as a relief or a contrast. So the heaviness of the 1st movement has to be tempered. But the music is very slow, and even here there is too much of a minor feel to be light. At best it is restful at times. There is turbulence right under the surface. A movement can begin and end in major and yet be so “un-major” in the middle that you are left with an overall impression of tragedy. I would say that mostly this music is terribly complicated and anything but light.

3rd movement

Suddenly the music is powerful, and very obviously positive. It’s back in major, and the whole thing ends with a very powerful major feeling. This movement makes you feel good. It’s a great place to start. The whole thing is marked as simple duple meter, 2/4, but that’s only on paper. The actual beat continually changes, so sometimes you hear four beats, sometimes three and sometimes five. That is a typical characteristic of Brahms. His rhythms are complicated and not at all what they seem to be in the written music.

4th movement

This is like theme and variations, but the theme is just a bass line with interesting chords. The formal name is a “passacaglia”, which is so hard to spell that this spell-checker says it’s not a word – but it is. You can read about it HERE.

It is basically a cool chord progression with a great a bass part that fascinates musicians. The top line, almost like a melody, climbs, while the bass line goes down. Then Brahms uses that idea to create variations. I may eventually time stamp them. It’s back to minor, so there is nothing joyous or optimistic. The ending is serious, angry, and not at all quiet. Perhaps some do not like this symphony because of “no happy ending”. But I think it’s one of the finest symphonies ever written.

This is the only one of Brahms’ four symphonies to end in a minor key.

3 thoughts on “1884: Brahms: Symphony No. 4 in E minor

  1. I listened to the third movement and enjoyed the lively, cheerful music. I don’t know the sound of some of the instruments, however, I did hear the timpani loud and clear.

  2. That’s some powerful music throughout! To help my fellow students, in the comments on the YT site I found these divisions for finding the movements:

    I. Allegro non troppo (00:00)
    II. Andante moderato (12:54)
    III. Allegro giocoso (24:17)
    IV. Allegro energico e passionato (30:27)

    Wikki says no. IV was related to a Bach piece. What I heard there was so magnificent that I hope it’s ok to add a link this one time. I haven’t been able to catch the similarity yet if there is one.

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