Symphony No. 4
BORN May 7, 1833 | Hamburg, Germany
DIED April 3, 1897 | Vienna Austria
In the 19th century, composers, critics, and audiences were polarized on the issue of where music should go after Beethoven. Everyone was expected to declare their allegiance to one side or the other: to Richard Wagner or Johannes Brahms.
Wagner was considered the pioneer who represented the self-proclaimed “Music of the Future.” He believed that Beethoven had done everything that was to be done in the genre of the symphony. So Wagner composed dramatic forms like opera and program music: instrumental music that evokes something extramusical, such as a story, a scene, or an idea. On the other side was Johannes Brahms, considered by his contemporaries to be conservative, carrying on the legacy of Beethoven. Brahms had great respect for composers of the past and continued writing in the genres that Beethoven had brought to maturity: absolute music (music with no extramusical connection) such as the symphony and string quartet. Brahms wrote four symphonies — the first of which was dubbed “Beethoven’s Tenth” — to prove that the genre was still relevant.
In the Fourth Symphony, we hear Brahms looking both to the past and to the future. For the final movement, Brahms wrote a passacaglia — a baroque variation form — on a theme borrowed from a cantata by J.S. Bach titled “I long to be near you, Lord.” The movement opens with the 8-measure chorale theme, led by the trombones that Brahms has saved for this moment. Brahms then spins thirty continuous variations, all strictly set over the same repeated theme in the bass. In this movement, Brahms somehow instills a baroque form using a baroque theme with the full emotional expression of the Romantic period, composing one of the most expressive and tragic works of the era.
Fifty years later, Arnold Schoenberg would counter the accepted dichotomy of Romantic era music when he wrote an essay titled “Brahms the Progressive.” Schoenberg — one of the most important and influential composers of 20th-century music — lauded Brahms for his ability to generate themes, movements, and entire compositions from the smallest bit of melodic material. In retrospect, Schoenberg believed, Brahms was the composer that paved the way for the music of the future.