Saturday, December 10, 2005


Brahms: Symphony No. 4, E minor

Brahms lived to be almost sixty-four years old, but he finished his last symphony when he was only fifty-two. In many respects, the E minor is the most remarkable of the four, just as it the least conventional. In movement sequence it violates some of the most time-honored canons of the symphonic form: it begins with an allegro, moves on to an andante, then to another allegro, and ends with a third allegro, energico e passionato, that is actually a passacaglia---a theme and variations in triple time. It begins and ends tragically, violating another supposed rule that even a tragic symphony must close on a yea. Be it said that Brahms' innovations are, in themselves, completely successful, and that none of his other symphonies so consistently holds the attention as the Fourth. It is unquestionably one of the sovereign works for orchestra, never void for moment of great melodic inspiration, and orchestrated sensitively, sometimes brilliantly. Coming after the spacious but mysteriously and darkly questioning first movement, the melancholy, tender andante, and robust good-humored allegro giocoso, the majestic passacaglia, with the mind-dazzling variety of its thirty variations and finale, is as inspired a conception as the grande fugue of the "Handel" Variations.

The Third of Brahms' Symphonies was followed very soon by the Fourth---in E minor, Op. 98, completed in 1885. This Fourth Symphony is unquestionably the most mature and the most forcefully dramatic of them all; the Coda of the first Movement surges to an intensity of white-hot passion quite without an equal in any of Brahms' symphonic creations. The choice of key is unusual: E minor seems to have been strangely unappealing to the early masters of the Symphony (Haydn did use E minor for one of his earliest Symphonies) for some reason not fathomable. The temper of the entire Symphony, excepting only the Third Movement, is severe, somber, though not in the least pessimistic; flashes of genial radiance soften its austere lines in many places, and phrases of surpassing loveliness emphatically confute the opinion of some commentators that this Symphony is chiefly a product of intellectual ardor, more reflective than emotional. Brahms possessed---and used---that "cerebral power which is the necessary concomitant of the highest artistic achievements," as Mr. Cecil Gray so happily expresses a momentous fundamental principle. The probability remains, be it admitted, that the Fourth is not likely to become the most popular and beloved of the Symphonies of Brahms.


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