Brahms: Symphony No. 4

The following originally appeared as a program note to a DePaul Symphony Orchestra performance of Brahms' Symphony No. 4.  You are welcome to reprint it free of change; but please let me know about it and attribute me.  Thanks! 

Brahms's final symphony, in E minor, Op. 98, surprising as it may seem, was written right on the heals of the composer's (mostly) serene and gentle Third Symphony, in 1885.  Brahms had 12 more years to live and was at the height of his fame and popularity as a composer.   Given how distinctly the Fourth sounds like a composer's final words about symphonic form, one could be forgiven for finding it odd that he had plenty of composing left in him.  It is certainly no less odd that the four notes that begin the symphony appear as the opening of the third of the "Four Serious Songs" written in the composer's final year.  And it can only seem unbearably odd that those four notes accompany the words "Oh Death, oh Death."

The aforementioned four notes that begin the exposition of the symphony’s sonata form first movement are part of a what seems like it should be a long, sustained melody that is curiously interrupted by rests.  Though strikingly, maybe melancholically, beautiful, it is actually quite simple – a chain of thirds that descend from B to B, then ascend again starting on E.  The compositional genius lies in octave displacement of the notes of the melody, which give a completely disjunct, anguished surface to what is in fact an obsessively symmetrical construction.  Like so much of Brahms's music, this theme inhabits a place that is simultaneously strictly organized, rigidly logical, yet seemingly spontaneously expressive.  When the melody is repeated a second time, its disjunct nature is positively Mahlerian in its refusal to stay in one octave for two notes in a row.  Though an impassioned second theme (in the "correct" key, according to the conventions of sonata form, the dominant, B minor) appears in the cellos and horn, its introductory figure in the woodwinds, a jaunty triplet figure that outlines a major triad (i.e., ascending thirds) ends up being the formally significant motif.  After the second theme appears and eventually dwindles away, it is this triplet figure that re-appears heroically in B major (the first time the major mode has been heard for any sustained period of time) and allows the exposition to close triumphantly.  (A brief diversion before this close, into a key a third away from B major, slips by us unnoticed, as does inability of the exposition to complete a satisfactory cadence, but it will have major implications for the rest of the movement.)

The development section begins much as the exposition had -- in E minor, with the descending thirds melody.  In fact, the beginning of the development section is literally the same notes, leading an unsuspecting listener to assume that the exposition is being repeated, before veering innocently to a key that is a third away, G minor.  The development section functions at first almost as a set of variations on the movement's opening theme, before the triplet motif insidiously takes over -- at first shadowy, then assertive, cadencing, not surprisingly, in a key a third away from E minor.  Though the movement's main theme returns to end the development, it is exhausted; the beginning of the recapitulation, so often the high point of a sonata form first movement, is here a moment of complete harmonic statis.  We hear only stark woodwinds outlining the descending thirds melody, and the entire orchestra responding with a single, baffled, motionless chord.  Eventually the melody continues, and the movement regains momentum.  Everything in the recapitulation proceeds precisely as it had in the exposition, only in the home key of E minor.  When the jaunty triplet motif reappears in E major, we are promised an optimistic ending.

It is here, though, that implications of exposition's failures become to fruition.  Following the exposition's pattern, the recapitulation modulates briefly away from E major (naturally, up a third), but cannot regain the major mode, prompting a cataclysm of a coda in which the only tonality-affirming cadences are those at the very end, beating a relentlessly pessimistic E minor into the bewildered listener's ear.

The post-apocalyptic second movement begins with two surviving horns repeating the very same note, E, on which the first movement had ended.  At first ambiguous, the entrance of the clarinets confirm an E major tonality of such out-of-place serenity that one cannot but feel that it is a dream.  The melody outlines an ascending third, it outlines a descending third; nevertheless, an unruffled E major persists.   Though it is briefly interrupted by an aggressive, severe, minor-key woodwind motif (which goes one step beyond the movement's main theme, outlining an ascending fourth) the second theme appears, given to Brahms's beloved cellos.  It transforms the woodwind motif into a ravishing B major.  (The ability of the symphony's thematic material to evolve will become crucial as the work wears on.)  The development section is short but hardly perfunctory.  The recapitulation, with the violas playing the melody, is too untroubled to be sustainable, a crisis beginning in the woodwinds builds until the climactic return of the aggressive woodwind motif, now hammered out by the full orchestra.  The aggression ends abruptly, and the second theme is played, now victoriously, by the entire string section, in a warm, celebratory E major.  Despite a moment of uncertainty, the movement closes in nocturnal splendor.

The third movement, strangely the first not centered around E, is nevertheless not unpredictably set in a key a third away from the symphony's principal tonal center.  Its bright C major, in a confident and unusual (for a Scherzo) 2/4, represents a sudden departure from the darkness of the previous movements.   Though this movement also manifests a tendency to modulate suddenly by thirds (as in the tenth bar when a horn fanfare lunges us into the distant key of E-flat major) its scheme of key areas strikes us as more capricious than problematic.  The occasional reminder of falling thirds in the woodwinds here seems more whimsical than troubling.  A brief, gentle middle section leads to a confident recapitulation and an athletic, optimistic ending.

The fourth movement's opening immediately negates any optimism earned by the Scherzo.  Its eight block chords, one per bar, standing stubbornly and defiantly like columns of ancient Greek ruins, reap the tonal problems that the previous movements sowed.  Though Brahms is thought to have used the bassline to the final chorus of Bach's Cantata #150 as the theme for this intentionally mangled imitation of the Baroque variation genre, the Passacaglia, he adds touches of a such unpredictable yet subtle sophistication as to completely undermine the predictable stability of the older form.  Brahms's quotation of Bach's bassline is note-for-note save for a single added pitch; his harmonization is not.  While Bach’s theme ascends an entire fifth (more than the previous movements' thirds or fourths), and suggests a somewhat obvious and stable harmonization, Brahms’s achieves nothing tonally speaking.  It is barely functional harmony; there is no dominant to tonic motion; it begins on the wrong chord; it ends on an unprepared major chord that was all too easily achieved.  In short, the eight bars on which the movement will be based are fundamentally flawed in a way that will prove fatal to the symphony's outcome.  The opening several minor key variations (first for the pizzicato strings, then the woodwinds, then the strings again) all retain Bach’s bassline but none but the first of them are harmonized the same.  As the texture thickens in imitation of Baroque counterpart, even the previously predictable harmonic rhythm completely collapses.  Though the bassline is ever-present, it is hidden in the shadows.

A middle section begins somberly, with a flute solo elaborating in slow motion the Bach theme.  Its controlled despair is rewarded by an E major from the clarinets and oboes, more consolatory that happy.  When the trombones enter with a solemn chorale variation, it seems to us that we are in the world of Brahms's German Requiem.  It may be gentle, but only because someone has died.  The entire orchestra takes up the trombone chorale, and when it is unable to complete a cadence, the opening eight block chords interrupt unexpectedly, in an unwelcome recapitulatory gesture.  This time, though the eight chords go a step further, to more unstable tonal areas, prompting a series of aggressive variations that climax on the return of a woodwind theme from earlier in the movement, here played by the impassioned strings.  A few quiet, anxious variations are interrupted by the final one, strings playing what by now must be considered completely inevitable: a descending string of thirds, a direct (if not obviously on the surface) quotation of the first movement's opening theme (a connection first made in a famous passage in Schoenberg’s essay, “Brahms the Progressive.”)  The circle is complete -- the thirds had become fourths in the second movement, and they had become a fifth in this movement.  Now the thirds have returned, and the unavoidably disastrous coda begins.  Modulating too rapidly to follow, the texture's eventual arrival on a cadential chord feels as if Brahms is imposing functional harmony a work that that has gotten out of control, just so that the symphony can end.  All of the melodic material is infected, and Bach's bassline, no longer an ascending fifth, is presented over and over as two ascending thirds.  Even the eventual achievement of dominant-tonic cadences feature thirds in the melodic line.  The final cadence, while correct, is a Pyrrhic victory.  

Brahms' struggle with the descending thirds wasn't over, and it can be no coincidence that the previously mentioned song, "O Death," not only shares this symphony’s motivic material but is in the same key.  What are we to make of the song’s eventual achievement of E major as its final destination?