Brahms: Symphony no. 4
“Brahms does something to us that perhaps no other composer does. It’s amazing.”
— Benjamin Zander
30 years later, Brahms is at the pinnacle of his fame. He’s recognized as the greatest composer of the day. Schumann’s prediction came true. He’s put Beethoven’s shadow behind him. He’s absorbed Renaissance music, Baroque music, all of Classical music, and possibly he was the most knowledgeable composer of the day and maybe the greatest musician of that time.
Schoenberg wrote an article, Brahms the Modernist, so his reach went from the beginning of music forward. This is his final orchestral work, and it’s a desert island piece. If I could only take five pieces on a desert island, Brahms’ Four would be one of them, and I’m not sure what the other three would be. He put in it all he knew of a lifetime of composing and studying. It’s pure music and that makes it difficult to talk about. There’s no libretto, no story, no Irish actress, no hammer blows, no last will and testament, and no Hiawatha’s Wedding; it’s absolute music. It’s full of deep, deep emotion, but the emotion is now tamed by a profound mastery. It actually can’t be described. It’s beyond words.
We don’t even agree what it means. Yesterday, one of the cellists said, “I feel a deep reverence in the slow movement.” Some hear unalloyed joy in the third movement, others fierceness, tragedy in the finale, others hear defiant nobility. What is it? Just feel it. Just feel it and listen to it. Mendelssohn said, “Music is more precise than words,” and I think he was right. Maybe if we just focus on a few things, it will help us to listen more intently.
The beginning of the piece sounds as though it’s been going on long before and we’re catching it on the air. It’s strange and effervescent. It begins with a figure in the violins in octaves.
In the background, six wind players shadow that by playing exactly the same thing one note later.
And the cellos have another figure while that’s going on, and the violas.
There are also two horns playing. Listen for them too.
Now, if we go to letter A, this happens, the violins first and seconds play like this.
Now, the cellos and the basses have that offbeat rhythm.
And the violas and the clarinets have this.
And now if we put all that together with the two horns, you get this at letter A.
It’s all variation. All of it is variation. And what we must do is concentrate. Concentrate on the music itself. It is so, so beautiful.
Now, if you want to work very hard, you can listen even more carefully. And it’s very exciting, because everything derives from that opening theme, everything. Because if you take this phrase and instead of going up, you go down, you have a falling third. That’s a third, and this piece is all about falling thirds.
Now, if you listen very carefully, the cellos in their very first bar… Just play the very first bar, the very first bar of the piece. Do you hear those last two note? That’s exactly the same phrase that they begin with. But you wouldn’t hear that. And certainly, if I hadn’t pointed out, you wouldn’t hear it. And it doesn’t matter if you don’t hear it, but we musicians love the fact that this is going on. We just are endlessly fascinated.
So then, there’s a great second theme in the cellos and horns. Listen to this great theme.
No, we have to begin in the same bar. It’s the beginning of letter C, 57. They start on the first beat.
Now, probably when you are listening to this, you’ll think, “My God, what wonderful cello players, and what a gorgeous horn player, and what a beautiful tune.” But if you listen carefully, you might hear in the background falling thirds. Let’s hear it, all of us, from letter C. And if you listen carefully, it sounds like a tango. You heard it? She heard it. She heard that, the falling. She went like. That’s my dream, to have an audience. That’s it. That’s it, right?
Now, let me show you another thing. In the last movement… Why am I jumping to the last movement? Let’s look at bar 233 in the last movement. Would you do that? And you’ll see something amazing that happens there. 230, here we are, yes.
Now, if you go back to the first movement and you go to measure 153, the second violins play this.
Right. So that’s very clear what’s going on here.
Now, just before what I call the tango theme… I don’t think Brahms knew it was a tango, but just before that theme, there’s a kind of martial fanfare like this.
Now, this is a complicated rhythm because one is a duplet and one is a triplet. And if you’re not very careful, because triplets are very powerful, they tend to dominate, you’ll do exactly what the winds just did, which is to play, which is a triplet. Do you hear the difference? Isn’t that great?
Now, very few performers make that difference, just the people around here do it. So what I want you to hear is what happens when you really do that rhythm? We’re going to play a passage at number 73, and half the orchestra’s playing in four, and half the orchestra’s playing in three, and we’re not going to muddle them up.
Actually, we didn’t do that very well because it sounded a bit muddled to me. Let’s really make it clear. So once again, one, two, three, and. There we go. You end this here. You see, that’s immensely satisfying. And you can go home and listen to your recordings, and none of them do that; they muddle their rhythms up. So this is very exciting. That’s characteristic Brahms rhythm, four against three, two against three. And if you get it right, it’s just endlessly thrilling.
There’s a third theme in this movement, and it’s also based on the three, the third, rising third and falling third. Let’s just play. That’s at 95.
Good. And everybody can hear that that’s the rising third and the falling third. And then there’s a wonderful passage which is like kind of swirling mists, and if you listen very carefully, it’s all based on rising and falling thirds. And if you listen even more carefully, in the trumpets you hear a little fanfare in the background.
And then there’s another little fanfare which appears, which is all based on rising thirds.
So that’s all the material that he deals with. Now, he’s already developed it. So what happens in the development? Well, I’ll tell you, this is very, very exciting. He prepares the development in this way, and you’ll recognize the falling thirds from the beginning.
Now, what would normally happen, because that’s the end of the exposition, it would go back to the beginning, a repeat, and it would all be repeated. In fact, every composer before this, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Dvorak, and Brahms himself, had always made a repeat at this point and gone back to the beginning. And Brahms doesn’t do it this time, but he cheats us. He deceives us because he pretends that he is going to do it, and after that comes this.
And you think it’s gone back to the beginning, he’s just going to repeat it all. And then he does this. You see? And that’s exactly what they did in Brahms this time. In fact, they went, “Wow, he’s not making a repeat. Why not?” First time ever in the history of the symphony. Isn’t that exciting? So now he develops. And if you pay attention, you’ll see all the things that he does to develop, but the question is, how does he get out of the development and get back to the recapitulation? Because he’s already done this; he can’t do it again. So this is what he does. Amazing. He plays this passage. It’s the main theme, but it’s slowed down.
Oh. No, no. No, no, no, it’s not that. Oh, I see. You want to start there? Okay, that’s actually a good place to start. It’s not what I meant actually. Just a moment, hang on, hang on, yeah. I was going to start at L, but let’s do it. That’s a nice passage. Let’s do 243. What he’s doing just before that is all around the orchestra. And then he plays this wonderful passage, falling thirds. Now, in the winds you hear this. And now, the mists swirling.
And then comes the most amazing note, a D sharp.
And this lady, she almost swooned. She went, “Ah,” like that. And it’s exactly what she should do, because swooning is what it calls for. This is one of the greatest moments in Western music. And what we realize is, in fact, that the recapitulation had already started when we had those long notes in the winds, but nobody would guess it. And I have a dream. I have a dream that everybody will hear it. Everybody.
There’s lots more to tell you about the first movement, but, again, I’m going to tell you about the second movement. The second movement is one of the most original inspired slow movements in all of symphonic literature. It is incredibly beautiful. It begins with a beautiful theme, of course, a rising third. And interestingly enough, it’s at the same tempo as the first movement, which joins them together. It’s a kind of solemn processional in the horn.
Rising third, falling third, and we don’t know what key it’s in. This is a Phrygian mode. It brings us back to the Renaissance. We don’t really know whether it’s in E or C, and Brahms plays with that all the way through the movement. At the end of it, we hear that it’s in E major, and there’s an absolutely gorgeous theme in the clarinets.
And we don’t need to play it, you’ll hear it. It’s beautiful, with wonderful pizzicato accompaniments. And it’s like a ballad. I always think it’s like stanzas in a ballad. And then the violins play a gorgeous theme, rising third, falling third. And then a faster version of it. And then an incredibly beautiful rendition of it with the cellos playing it, with a little decoration here in the violins. Let’s try C.
When you listen to this, you’ll notice that we don’t play it metronomically. It’s a little free, a little rubato, a little… Just that elasticity of time that is so special in this music. And you might also notice, if listen very carefully, that there’s a bassoon playing, actually two bassoons eventually, playing in the background. You wouldn’t notice that if I hadn’t pointed that out. But that’s one of the beautiful things about this music, you never get tired of finding new things, new sounds, new instruments.
And Brahms is dealing with very limited resources. This is a normal orchestra, Beethoven orchestra, Haydn. The only difference really is four horns rather than two, otherwise, and you’ll see in the last movement the trombones appear, but it’s very classical in its thought. There’s an extraordinarily beautiful moment, which I want to make sure that you hear. And if your next door neighbor has fallen asleep at this moment, it happens sometimes, please wake them up, because this is a viola solo. There are very few in the literature. And it’s not a viola solo for one viola, it’s a solo for two viola voices. It’s that clarinet theme that I didn’t play before. Let’s hear it on the violas.
Good. And in the background, there are wonderful things going on in the winds, falling thirds and rising fourths. Let’s hear it once again.
It’s too beautiful. It’s too beautiful. I mean, I can only do something like that once in an evening. It’s too beautiful. There’s also one incredible moment, and I was deciding whether to actually play this moment. We’ll play a few moments of it. At number 88, the strings divide themselves up into seven voices. It’s one of the most amazing sounds. It goes on the list of the greatest moments in Western music.
There’s a man over there swooning. He’ll have to wait. You’ll have to wait, I’m afraid, for it to come back. One of the string players came up to me afterwards since when we played this the other day and said, “That passage was what made me go into music.” Isn’t that amazing? Just the sound. And we all feel that way about Brahms. Brahms does something to us that perhaps no other composer does. It’s amazing.
There are many other things in the last movement. There’s an amazing mist section with a beautiful clarinet and timpani. And at the end, it goes back and forth between E major and C major. Nevermind whether you know what those are, you’ll feel those pull between those two keys, so irresistible.
So the third movement is in C major, which of course, is a third from E. So everything is built in thirds throughout the symphony, even between the movements. And it’s fantastically joyous, boisterous. Giocoso, it’s marked. I always think of Falstaff. If you think of Falstaff, you’ll get the right feeling. I’m not going to play the beginning, but I am going to play one passage to you with the orchestra, which is bar 35, because at that moment, for the first time in a symphony, a triangle enters the scene. Where’s he gone? There he is.
And of course, it’s so right, isn’t it? Brahms was brilliant. I mean, the poor fella, that’s all he does all evening. No, he plays a little bit more. There’s a little bit more. But anyway, that’s all he does.
So there’s a middle section, a contrasting theme, in a very strange tonality. And that shouldn’t bother you at all, but it’s D flat major, which when you’re in a C major piece is really odd. And it should sound odd. We don’t need to play it. It’s a very far away feeling, full of mystery and pathos, and then it comes back to C major. And it’s just endless, the endless process of hearing this music.
Now, comes the last movement. And the last movement is a culmination of a pilgrimage that Brahms went on from the beginning of his life. This was the culmination of everything that he had done in his life. And what he did was he took a theme from Bach, a passacaglia or chaconne theme, and he wrote his final symphonic movement, his tempest, he wrote on that theme. And he changed one note, and it makes it very romantic. It’s an A sharp. And we’re going to have the cellos and basses play the theme. From the beginning.
And this fellow, he was listening, he went, “Oh, that’s the A sharp.” It was very obvious which note that is. Isn’t it great? And that note is very, very special. So we’re going to do it from the beginning, and you’re going to hear the trombones for the first time. They’ve been sitting quietly all evening, and they finally come in. And please, sing along. We are just going to do this tune. This is sing as loud as you can. And feel that A sharp when it comes. Are you ready? And everybody play from the beginning.
Isn’t that an amazing sound? It’s so beautiful we’re going to do it again, but this time really sing. Flat out, everybody sing. Orchestra, too, sing. Here we go. Here we go.
Beautiful. Now, the trombones come back later in a most magical way, playing very softly. But now, I’m going to tell you now what happens. He takes this eight-bar theme and he plays it 31 times, 31 times. And if you like, you can follow that that theme is always somewhere. Now, sometimes it’s very obvious and sometimes it’s hidden, and it’s quite fun to find out where it is. And we’ve actually worked quite hard to make sure that it’s audible. And don’t worry if you miss it because you’ll love it anyway.
But I do want to draw your attention to one thing, which is there’s a gorgeous and very special flute solo. It’s one of the great moments in the whole flute repertoire, and our flutist plays it particularly beautifully and I want you to know what she’s doing. Normally, in most performances, the tempo is reduced to half in order to accommodate the flute player, and I think it’s a huge mistake. And Brahms is very clear that he wants to keep the same tempo. And when you hear it at this tempo, it’ll sound like this.
Isn’t that beautiful? It’s so beautiful.
I can’t imagine why anybody would want to hear it played slower than that; it seems so perfect. Anyway, the main thing now as we go through this movement is to appreciate the incredible variety; the same melody, the same eight notes, 31 times, in the same key, and it is not boring for one single minute. It’s a miracle. It’s a miracle of creation, and it has an enormous inexorable momentum.
The last movement of a symphony is often light and entertaining. And this is not what this is; this is deep, profound, and probably his greatest movement. And it is the culmination of his greatest symphony and, I think, in some senses, a culmination of all his life and all his symphonies, and it’s his farewell to the world. And it’s always a privilege to play it, and it’s especially a privilege to play it for an audience that is listening very, very intently. Thank you.