Johannes Brahms

Symphony No. 4

Explained using the 5-4-3-2-1 Method

Duration: 40–50 Minutes
Genre: Symphony
Time of Creation: 1884–1885
World Premiere: October 25, 1885 (Meiningen)

Table of Contents

Brahms' Symphony No. 4 in 5 Sentences

Symphony No. 4 is Brahms’ last symphony, in which he once again took his personal compositional style to the extreme: Brahms was known for developing large forms from the smallest individual parts (a further development of Beethoven’s and Haydn’s style), which he did extensively in Symphony No. 4, especially in the first movement (see “Highlight 1” below). This led to Brahms’s compositional style sometimes being called “radical.” Brahms wrote his Symphony No. 4 while spending his summer vacation in Styria. Brahms himself did not really like his Symphony No. 4 – in a letter he wrote that it “tastes of the Styrian climate,” where not even the cherries get sweet.

Note: This work belongs to the Classical Music Top 100.

4 Highlights from Brahms' Symphony No. 4

Highlight 1: the nucleus

As described above, Brahms took his style of developing everything from tiny cells to the extreme in Symphony No. 4. But what could such a tiny cell be? It could be a theme (as in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21) or even a motif (as in the famous beginning of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony). But here things are even more extreme: Brahms’ starting point is a single interval, namely a falling third:

Highlight 2: Horn Call

The second movement begins with a call from the horns, which is gradually joined by the other winds:

Highlight 3: turbulent third movement

There is bustle-like activity in the third movement. In the context of the two preceding movements, this movement has been variously interpreted: Some musicologists see it as sheer sarcasm. It is further striking that Brahms uses piccolo and triangle here, which he did not normally do. These instruments originate from military music, so that a military interpretation is also conceivable:

Highlight 4: Farewell with old severity

Brahms bids farewell to the symphonic genre with a historical retrospective: The last movement of Symphony No. 4 is a passacaglia. This is a very strict form from Baroque music, in which a certain melody line is present throughout:

3 Questions and Answers about Brahms' Symphony No. 4

Question 1: How many symphonies are there by Brahms?

There are four symphonies by Brahms.

Question 2: Who premiered Brahms' 4th symphony?

The Meininger Hofkapelle played at the premiere. Brahms conducted himself.

Question 3: What was the effect of Brahms' 4th Symphony on the audience?

The reactions were divided: Not everyone was comfortable with Brahms’s radical approach to composition (see “Highlight 1” above). However, there were also very successful performances of the work early on (for example, as part of a world tour with conductor Hans von Bülow).

2 Recommended Recordings of Brahms' Symphony No. 4

Recording 1: NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra, Christoph von Dohnányi (live, 2007)

When it comes to Brahms, I always like to turn to Christoph von Dohnányi’s interpretations with the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester, which are characterized by a particularly rich sound:

Recording 2: WDR Symphony Orchestra, Jukka-Pekka Saraste (live, 2014)

Another moving performance of Brahms’ 4th Symphony comes from the WDR Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Jukka-Pekka Saraste:

1 Quote about Brahms' Symphony No. 4

Just the first phrase! It's not a question and answer, this beginning. It is, as it were, question and another question. And to begin a symphony like that, I think is very modern for that time. There is no introduction, it just starts with this very nostalgic and melancholic melody. But then again, it always brings in a touch of light, a touch of love.

Conductor Simone Young on the beginning of Brahms' 4th Symphony in conversation with BR-Klassik

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