For the final installment in our series on Brahms’ symphonies, we will hear his Fourth Symphony (my personal favorite), played by the Chamber Orchestra of Europe under the baton of Bernard Haitink.
The Fourth Symphony is the capstone. It is structurally perfect, emotionally overwhelming, and arrestingly personal. It is Brahms’ worldview in a piece of music, saturated with sadness, joy, hopelessness, and an occasional burst of inspiration.
This was the first full symphony I ever performed. It was in 2008, I was 15, and the conductor of the Chicago Lyric Opera was conducting the NH All-State Orchestra. During the first evening of rehearsals, he mercilessly drilled us on the technical elements of the symphony. On the second day, he stretched our expressive capacity to its limit. In the concert the following day, he found a way to let the orchestra loose. It was magical.
Here’s what to listen for in each movement:
- The opening melody is timeless. It returns over and over again, each time sweeping into the spotlight with an overwhelming and graceful swell. Listen for the melancholy sighs of the violins that ride on the rolling notes of the cellos.
- The fanfare at the opening is just a introduction; the real melody starts at 13:18 (with the secondary theme starting at 15:27) and seems to calm the agitated atmosphere of the dark first movement. In my humble opinion, this theme may just be Brahms’ loveliest.
- In homage to Beethoven, the third movement is a dance. It was so popular at the premiere that the audience ask that it be repeated as the encore. It is the lone moment of cheerfulness in the entire symphony.
- The fourth movement is a Ciaconna (a form of Baroque dance). The opening theme is built on a simple ascending scale that Brahms then proceeded to write 34 variations for. This movement returns to the darkness of the first movement, then descends to even darker depths.