March 1, 2019

JOHANNES BRAHMS (1833-1897): His Final Symphony and His First Piano Concerto

Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Opus 98

Johannes Brahms was born in Hamburg on May 7, 1833, and died in Vienna on April 3, 1897. He first mentioned the Fourth Symphony in a letter to his publisher on August 19, 1884; about a year later, in October 1885, he gave a two-piano reading of it with Ignaz Brüll for a small group of friends, and conducted the premiere at Meiningen on October 25. The score calls for two flutes and piccolo, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, triangle, and strings. Piccolo and triangle appear only in the third movement, contrabassoon only in the third and fourth movements, and trombones only in the fourth. Duration is about 39 minutes.

Of all the great masters of the nineteenth century, Brahms was the one who most thoroughly absorbed the new study of music history and who understood the music of the past as well as he understood that of the present. So it is hardly surprising—even though a trifle ironic—that his last and most modern symphony, arguably his greatest single symphonic achievement, should also be the one most deeply indebted to the music of the past, even to the point of reviving techniques and forms that most people regarded as long dead, and making them live anew. Brahms is by no means the only composer over the last century or so who has gone “back to the future,” but he may have done it more successfully than anyone else.

It is well known that Brahms waited a long time—until he was forty-three, in 1876—before allowing the world to hear what he was finally willing to let go as his First Symphony (he had planned several others before that, and a few of them actually reached completion, but as something other than a symphony). Once having broken the ice, though, Brahms immediately composed a Second Symphony the following year. Then after a gap of five years, he composed his Third Symphony, and again a sibling immediately followed a year later.

In the summer of 1884, Brahms wrote to his publisher that he needed music paper with more staves on it—a hint from this always-reticent composer that he was writing music for orchestra. Brahms always chose a location of great natural beauty for his summer vacation, rarely choosing same place more than twice. There he would compose feverishly, absorbing the beauties of the surrounding countryside into his music. He began work on the Fourth Symphony late in the summer of 1884 at the tiny village of Mürzzuschlag. When he reported to friends that the cherries in the area were unusually tart, too much so to eat them simply as fruit, he also wondered whether his new symphony might be equally tart. (Certainly early audiences found it challenging and mysterious.)

Hans von Bülow wanted Brahms to write a new piano concerto (he never did), but by the end of the summer of 1885, which Brahms again spent at Mürzzuschlag, he was essentially done with the Fourth Symphony—though, as he reported to Bülow with characteristic modesty, “I do have a couple of entr’actes; put together they make what is commonly called a symphony.” He suggested that Bülow might lead a private reading of the work with his orchestra at Meiningen, since Brahms always disliked letting a work go out into the world without actually hearing it in something approximating an actual performance. Meiningen had the advantage of being a small court with a fine orchestra that was far away from the international musical capitals; even a public performance there would not attract the European press the way it might in Berlin or Vienna. Even with Bülow’s enthusiasm and the orchestra’s good will, they found the symphony a tough nut to crack. But after the premiere, the Meiningen orchestra toured with the work, giving it the benefit of their experience in an increasing number of performances, and winning many admirers.

Even some of Brahms’s closest friends felt that the symphony begins too abruptly. Yet Brahms clearly wanted the piece to sound as if it has begun somewhere else before we were able to hear: he had composed an introductory passage that would make the beginning quite definite—and then deleted it! What was left was clearly exactly what he wanted.

The opening theme is only the beginning of an astonishing web of closely interlocked ideas, each growing out of something that has come before or foreshadowing something that will follow after. Listeners familiar with the classical tradition expect that the composer will repeat the exposition (as Brahms himself had done in his three previous symphonies). Here he chooses to avoid that repetition—but he does so in a way that fools us, for eight measures, into thinking that a repeat has begun. Then a single, subtle change of harmony leads us far afield. The eventual return to the recapitulation has a surprise, too: the very opening theme appears in the woodwinds, but played in notes twice as long as when we first heard them, and sounding therefore like a hint of the approaching return, not the return itself. But then Brahms suddenly leaps back to the original speed and we find ourselves already in the middle of the recapitulation.

The second movement has a key signature for E major, but Brahms instead intones a theme that circles around the note E using the pitches of the scale of C major. This is nothing other than a return to the harmonic style of the sixteenth century, to the old Phrygian mode, about which Brahms read in one of the classic music histories of his time, a book by Winterfeld studying the music of Giovanni Gabrieli. In his copy of this book Brahms had especially marked a passage in which the author declared that the Phrygian mode was the darkest of all the melodic scales for traditional church music, expressing penitence and deep need.

Winterfeld also commented that the “gloomy Phrygian” must perforce yield to the “bright, cheerful Ionian”—C major—and Brahms seems to have followed this as a recommendation in his symphony, for the Scherzo is indeed in C, though there are other reasons for its appropriateness here: that key had already played an important role in the first movement, and the second movement’s Phrygian mode had suggested the key of C. Though most of the symphony was regarded as exceptionally difficult to understand in Brahms’s day, this movement earned from its first audience a request for an encore.

It is in the Finale that Brahms really reveals the depth of his commitment to the old Renaissance and Baroque masters and his power of transforming their techniques into a modern work. This is a passacaglia, a special kind of variation form in which a short melodic passage (and its harmonic implication) is set to repeating over and over again, while the composer finds ways to vary it. Since these variations often take the form of adding new contrapuntal lines—and since Brahms knew that counterpoint and variation were two of his greatest strengths as a composer—it seems natural to us that he should choose this form, but many of his friends were nonplused that he should try to imitate “dead” music. The first eight chords of the movement give the theme straight out (in the melody line). After that it returns, in some form, over and over, thirty times. The first nine variations gradually increase the tension almost to the breaking point, then four variations (which are in the major mode and played at half the speed of the others) function as an interlude to reduce the tension, allowing for another outburst to provide a kind of recapitulation for the final group of statements. A splendid coda, sonorous and glowing, provides the capstone for the work.


Johannes Brahms

Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Opus 15

Johannes Brahms was born in Hamburg, Germany, on May 7, 1833, and died in Vienna on April 3, 1897. His First Piano Concerto took shape over the years 1854‑1858. Brahms played the solo part in the first performance, which took place in Hanover on January 22, 1859, with Joseph Joachim conducting. In addition to the solo piano, the score calls for two each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, timpani, and strings. Duration is about 44 minutes.

The two piano concertos by Johannes Brahms are works of, respectively, youth and maturity. Brahms himself wrote to Joachim, after the disastrous reception accorded the First in Leipzig, “…and a second one will sound very different.” No doubt at the time he was simply reacting to the experience of hearing his own piece with a sure awareness of how much he had grown during its gestation; another concerto would naturally reflect that accumulated experience and perhaps be accomplished with less strain. But the Second Concerto did not come for more than two decades; it was to be the work of a portly, bearded, middle‑aged figure who demanded treasured privacy and whose music contained repose and poignancy. The First remains the work of a sensitive youth, a clean‑shaven stripling out of whom surged passionate and demanding music.

The D‑minor concerto, coming at a time of disappointment, frustration, and doubt, caused Brahms enormous trouble, more so than any other composition he ever produced. He was disturbed by the tragic breakdown and death, in July 1856, of his friend and mentor Robert Schumann, and even more perturbed by the inherent conflicts in his feelings toward Clara Schumann, which reached a pitch of romantic adoration and teetered on the precipice of an overt declaration of love before receding, after Schumann’s death, to a warm and supportive friendship that lasted for four decades.

Even after starting the work, Brahms was not exactly sure what it was going to be. He tried things out, showed them to Clara and to Joachim, his other closest musical friend, and wrote extensively reporting progress or lack of it. As early as the spring of 1854 he had written three movements of a sonata for two pianos, but before long he announced that the two pianos did not suit him and turned the first movement into an orchestral score. By 1855 he wrote to Joachim, referring to the work as a symphony (and it would be in D minor, the key of Beethoven’s Ninth, which Brahms had recently heard for the first time). But he could not get the sound of the piano out of his ears, and the following year Clara called it a concerto. There is a tradition that one of the sketched movements was removed, later to become the funeral march (second movement) of Brahms’s German Requiem. By the end of 1856 he had composed a rondo for the finale; Joachim was guardedly enthusiastic, and by January 1857 Brahms reported that the Adagio was going well. Still months of worry, revising, questioning, and doubt followed. Brahms played it privately for Joachim in March 1858, but at the end Brahms could only say, “It will never come to anything.” Finally, though, Joachim persuaded him to let the piece go, to send it to the copyist, and eventually out into the world.

Not until January 1859 was it heard, first in a private rehearsal with the Hanover court orchestra, Joachim conducting and Brahms playing the solo part, then a few days later at a public concert in Leipzig. The Gewandhaus orchestra had taken a dislike to the piece, and there was open hostility in the audience. In no respect was this the kind of concerto normally programmed by virtuoso pianists, designed solely for the purpose of astonishing the audience with the soloist’s brilliant elaborations of bright, tuneful melodies. The D‑minor concerto was, above all, serious, closely argued, a solid, craggy monument, a truly symphonic work in the popular genre of the concerto. And it is music of a young man, filled with the excesses of youth. The emotional range is generally limited to the darker moods, from tragedy to poignant resignation. The scoring shows signs of inexperience (and of the early intention to compose the work for two pianos); here and there the texture is so dense as to obscure the principal lines, and the colors are not yet as varied as they will be in later scores.

But Brahms more than compensates by the sheer strength of his technical aplomb in the part‑writing and harmonic scheme; few composers of his (or any other) time could touch him in those points, which make the musical progress continually engrossing.

Though the work is in D minor, the opening purposely avoids announcing the key. The first harmony we hear is a chord of B‑flat (in what is called “first inversion,” with the bass sustaining a D). First listeners were completely befuddled, though we, with the benefit of hindsight, can see the dramatic introduction as an enormously expanded version of a very simple harmonic motion.

Joachim claimed that the opening theme, tonally instable as it is, represents Brahms’s reaction to the news that his friend Schumann had attempted suicide by throwing himself into the Rhine. Brahms extends the idea with such ingenuity, such expressive drama, and such a wealth of resources, that it becomes a monumental preparation for the arrival of the real home key with the first entrance of the solo piano in D minor (the orchestral introduction has gone so far as to suggest that the opening movement might well be in D major before the soloist quietly disabuses us of that expectation). This kind of large‑scale shaping, which demands detailed concentration from the listener (and repays it tenfold) is rare enough at any time, but especially so in the work of a young man in his mid‑twenties.

Indeed, the opening movement is one of the largest symphonic movements composed by anyone after Beethoven, and it is dramatic in the way Beethoven was, employing musical ideas and keys and sonorities almost as characters in a play. In the opening movement the piano appears as a real dramatic foil to the thundering orchestra. It enters in a quiet, murmuring pensive mood; it also introduces, as a solo, the richly consoling second theme. And, though the pianist has much difficult music to play, the soloist never has a cadenza. The purpose of the solo part is not showiness, as in so many concertos, but concentrated thoughtful dialogue. The almost literal repetition of the second theme in the recapitulation is one of the few areas of repose in an otherwise tormented, turbulent movement.

The second movement, in D major, offers a great contrast to the storminess of the opening, but it still seems to have referred, in Brahms’s imagination, to Schumann. Over the opening piano theme, Brahms wrote the words “Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini” (“Blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord”), a text from the Sanctus of the Mass, and the music shares the spirit of the small sacred choral works he was composing about the same time. But Brahms also frequently referred to Schumann as “Mynheer Domini,” and, as Malcolm MacDonald suggests, he may have intended this serene passage as a kind of “instrumental requiem” for that composer’s troubled spirit. Despite its considerable length (which is only to be expected if it is to suit the gigantic opening movement), it remains intimate in expression almost throughout.

For the finale, Brahms returns to the demonic energy of D minor, a fast-moving rondo that is more grim than cheerful, yet exhilarating, too. Brahms builds almost all of the themes in this movement on a rising arpeggio that seems to have grown out of the lyrical second theme of the opening movement. The way in which he constructs his themes, developing, linking, and transforming ideas not only within, but between, movements, is astonishingly mature. We have an advantage over the first audience, who saw only a mere stripling taking his place at the keyboard to introduce his new work; they were quite unprepared for the intellectual onslaught. We know that that young man had one of the great musical minds, and we can take as many opportunities as we like to hear it again and penetrate its core. Brahms later developed to a higher pitch the surface variety in his music, but here he revealed its rock‑solid skeleton.

© Steven Ledbetter (

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