Brahms – Symphony No. 4 in E minor, op. 98

by Max Derrickson

Johannes Brahms   (b Hamburg, 7 May 1833; Vienna, 3 April 1897)

Symphony No. 4 in E minor, op. 98
1. Allegro non troppo
2. Andante moderato
3. Allegro giocoso
4. Allegro energico e passionato
The opening to Johannes Brahms’ Fourth Symphony, his final orchestral work, sounds as if we have dropped in on it somewhere in the middle, and its an exquisite place to be.  We hear the first theme played by the strings, alternating between mournfully sighing, descending thirds with pining ascending sixths, and the woodwinds echoing the strings one beat later in a canon.  Brahms had entertained the notion of a two bar introduction, but abandoned it, and the effect of its mid-thought-ness catches us by surprise.  And so begins one of the most extraordinary symphonies ever written – one full of surprises, genius, and immense beauty.

[. . .]

But if the intellectual depths of the structures and thematic development in the Fourth Symphony are remarkable, then the sheer beauty of its musical expression is sublime.  For instance, when the first movement comes to the end of its Development section, Brahms does not bring us immediately to the usually robust Recapitulation (the return of the first section), but rather to the quietest moment of the Symphony, marked ppp.  Here the winds, faltering with the first theme which is now ominously slower, are answered by the strings with musical wisps like cosmic evaporations, creating an infinitely profound moment.    [. . .]    But when the final, crushing blows of the Symphony’s heartrending passacaglia-finale are finished, we are left in a place beyond words.