When I first thought about a countdown of the best symphonies numbered four, I sort of assumed it would flow roughly as naturally as the countdown of symphonies numbered five. I was wrong. What an unbelievably crowded field. Normally I would be inclined to use the “honorable mention” as an excuse to list something that may not immediately leap to mind (as in the Don Gillis Symphony no. 5 ½ on the previous list). But when I made my little chart, there was no room for half-assed attempts at getting Mozart 40 or Haydn 94 or 104, or The Poem of Ecstasy on the list, which kind of blows my mind. Obviously the pool of possibilities swells with the inclusion of Brahms and Schumann, but wait until this thing is done and you see who got left off altogether. Without further hyperbole…
Honorable Mention: Symphony no. 4 by Dmitri Shostakovich
See what I mean? Shostakovich 4 as the honorable mention? Whoa. Everyone knows the story of Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony: he composed the symphony after the famous Pravda “Chaos, Not Music” article denouncing Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, withdrew it in rehearsals, ended up writing the “artist’s reply to just criticism” Fifth Symphony, and waited until 1961 to hear the premiere. Other than that and the persistent fear that he would be kidnapped or murdered by the NKVD, it was a pretty normal deal.
This is elementally visceral music. Name an emotion, and you’re likely to find it in here somewhere; bitterness, despair, grief, arrogance, anger, cynicism…I guess you won’t really find frivolity now that I think about it, but you will find the kind of FORCED frivolity that you can only get from Stalinist Russia, Mitch McConnell’s lifeless turtle eyes, and Ocean’s 13. You’ll also find many stylistic hat tips to the music of Mahler in this symphony, not the least of which is the somewhat ländler-ish 2nd movement. Many people far more intelligent than me believe that this is Shostakovich’s finest symphony, and while I may not agree, I think it is a remarkable summation of Shostakovich’s quite underrated early period, and music worthy of your ears if you have an hour, and perhaps a list of people, to kill.
Recommended recording: Kiril Kondrashin. If you can afford it, and are awesome, swing for the complete symphony set here which might be the only place here in the States to find the 4th. However, you can still have your Kondrashin and eat it to with the German premiere recording from 1963.
10) Symphony no. 4 by Carl Nielsen
Try and extinguish this symphony…I DARE YOU! Seriously, there are some really phenomenal names for symphonies out there, but ‘Inextinguishable’ takes the cake. And the best part is that it totally fits the music. Nielsen tried to capture “in one word what the music alone is capable of expressing to the full: the elemental Will of Life.” Some have suggested that this music is a commentary on WWI (the score was completed early in 1916); whether or not that is true is another discussion, but if it is, it certainly gives hope rather than destroys it.
The symphony takes on a huge arch structure with the main theme, first introduced by the clarinets in the first movement, returning at the work’s conclusion in full “blaze of glory” mode. There is also a remarkable oboe solo over string trills that concludes the third movement. But the most striking feature of the Inextinguishable is the dueling timani in the finale. While not quite as evocative a battle scene as 1812 or Wellington’s Victory (in the sense that it doesn’t involve live firearms), it’s certainly more musically rewarding, creating a very rough journey to achieve a well-earned victory. Nielsen’s Fourth also has the delightful side effect of unleashing my inner brass player, in which I display animalistic traits like a desire for reckless musical abandon and approval of overwhelming musical force.
Recommended recording: Something about the music of Scandinavia must have really resonated with Alexander Gibson, because he’s really good at it. His recording of the Inextinguishable is aided by the fact that the Scottish National Orchestra has one of the most entertainingly ballsy brass sections known to man or beast. I clearly need to write something about Alexander Gibson on this blog, because I feel like he never gets mentioned anywhere. Stay tuned, because he’ll probably be back.
9) Symphony no. 4 by Felix Mendelssohn
Hey, remember when your parents got you that gift for your 21st birthday where they paid for you to “vacation” abroad for almost 18 months in part because your friend and mentor, who also happened to be the greatest writer in the history of Germany and possibly everywhere else, suggested it? Oh, the things you surely learned and created during that time! Why, you may have been able to write music, say about the Hebrides, or thought of some stuff for a piece about your time in Scotland. But don’t forget that you also spent a ton of time in Italy, too…maybe you could have come up with a completely different masterpiece!
Those of us in America circa 2011 surely understand the notion that money, while it doesn’t guarantee success, probably can guarantee not failing. I only point that out because I don’t want to make it seem like Mendelssohn isn’t a total genius, because he is, and he’s horribly underrated, too. But what a bloody opportunity! To his credit, he ran with it and produced a lot of great music.
The Italian Symphony is probably Mendelssohn’s most famous symphony, largely because of the famous theme with which it opens. It has an utterly “Italian” sound to it, although that could be because we associate it with the view of Italy through the eyes of a Lutheran German Jew. Either way, they used the music to accompany scenes of an Italian cycling team in the absolutely dreadful but still eminently watchable Breaking Away (Dennis Quaid seems to have a knack for making these types of movies…have you seen Enemy Mine?). The development of the first movement is one of the very best you’ll hear, building to a really great climax before the recapitulation. The second movement sounds like music to accompany a religious pilgrimage, and in fact that may have been the inspiration (Mendelssohn is said to have witnessed such a procession in Naples). The third movement is a very nicely flowing minuet with a very cool trio section. Mendelssohn supposedly did not care for the finale, sufficiently enough to see to it that it was not published until after his death. Why, I couldn’t tell you, because it is a really cool folk dance called a saltarello, and possibly the most energetic music I’ve ever heard.
Recommended recording: There’s a really great Mendelssohn cycle with Claudio Abbado conducting the London Symphony Orchestra, and this disc comes paired with the Scotch (it must be called Scotch…way cooler than Scottish). There’s also a great live performance with the BBC Symphony and Gianandrea Noseda that I should upload here sometime. Oh hell, why not, it’s right here.
8) Symphony no. 4 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony ends up being treated a bit like the ugly stepchild between two pretty kids, only in this case the ugly stepchild has an IQ of 185, gets a great job, maybe can afford to get a little work done on her breasts and thighs, and ends up looking damn near as good as her siblings in the long run, plus she has that appeal to people who take pride in looking a little deeper for beauty (no word on what symphony numbered four is a metaphor for people who are simply desperate and will accept any vagina they can gain access to).
The fourth indeed sounds like a step backwards at first, if only because it is in a much more “classical” style than the Eroica, a logical progression from the 1st and 2nd symphonies. But frankly, if you remove Beethoven symphonies that are multiples of 3, the symphonies form a very concise and relatively linear exploration of traditional symphonic forms (culminating in the delightfully old-school 8th), and the 4th fits that context like a glove.
Beethoven returns to the slow introduction of Haydn, and what an introduction it is: very mysterious and sinister with some impressive dissonances that sound like what it feels like to be stabbed in the face. The slow movement is a very smooth rondo with a nice rocking-chair-on-a-porch-drinking-lemonade-in-the-South vibe. The scherzo is one of my very favorite movements of Beethoven; so much rhythmic energy and the staggered accents really keep you on your toes. Perpetual motion is the name of the game in the finale, until a great moment when everything stops and the violins play the theme at half speed before the entire orchestra races to the finish line in the last six bars. Very witty stuff from a guy not exactly known to be a lighthearted dude.
Recommended recording: Osmo Vanska and the Minnesota Orchestra. There are more Beethoven symphony sets out there than Paris Hilton has venereal diseases, but spring for this one…amazing sound quality and blazing interpretations to match.
7) Symphony no. 4 by Charles Ives
The musical journey of Charles Ives is an incredibly interesting one. The non-musical journey of Charles Ives is damned near as interesting. Ives’ worked as an insurance man, eventually ending up with own company (Ives and Myrick, and then eventually Ives and Co.). His tweaks to life insurance are a precursor to what those of us who have sufficient means to be considered part of the American oligarchy know today as estate planning. He was essentially a composer “on the side,” which is a great way to make me feel like a failure as I have achieved success at zero things and he achieved great success at two wholly distinct things. Also, his wife was named Harmony Twitchell, which is probably the greatest composer spouse name on record.
Ives’ Fourth Symphony is in many ways tied up with his unfinished Universe Symphony. Ives was seeking nothing short of of an all-embracing fulfillment, a sort of universal connection with the divine spirit. In order to accomplish that, you have to have a big orchestra and a chorus, probably several solo pianos, as many percussion instruments as you can manage to get your hands on, and you have to quote dozens of folk songs and hymn-tunes. Stokowski was of the belief that the 4th required three conductors to manage the complexity of the score. It is certainly a layered, dense, complicated work, but at its core it is an outpouring of emotion in the pursuit of brotherhood.
There are many great features to this symphony, but none are as lovely as the third movement, which Ives said is “an expression of the reaction of life into formalism and ritualism.” If church made me feel anywhere as near as good as it made Ives feel as manifested in this music…perhaps I wouldn’t be a hell-bound Sabbath breaker.
This music is not always easy to listen to, and any attempt to make sense of the layers would require dozens of hours of score study, but it absolutely takes you on a journey. The chorus in the first movement sings these words:
Watchman, tell us of the night,
What the signs of promise are:
Traveler o’er yon mountain’s height
See that Glory-beaming star!
Watchman, aught of joy or hope?
Traveler, yes, it brings the day,
Promised day of Israel.
Dost thou see its beauteous ray
And by the end of the work, with the glockenspiel twinkling like stars and the chorus wordlessly singing “Nearer, My God, to Thee,” it is clear that we have arrived at our celestial destination, and we can see the “beauteous ray” in all its glory.
Recommended recording: Michael Tilson Thomas and the Chicago Symphony. The 1st Symphony that is included on the disc is also really, really good.
6) Symphony no. 4 by Jean Sibelius
The first decade of the 20th century was a period of hopelessness and resignation, if we are to look at history through binoculars in A minor. Two of the mightiest composers of the era tackled symphonies in the key, and two of the most profoundly discouraging and powerfully human symphonies emerged. Mahler’s Sixth Symphony is one of the most celebrated compositions of all-time, and rightly so. It is a work of utter darkness, a giant monument to the phrase “life is not fair.” And if you thought IT was dark…
For my money, there is no music ever composed that can capture the isolation and despair of life better than Sibelius’ Fourth. Composed on the heels of the removal of a tumor from his throat, Sibelius became consumed by the work for the better part of a year, and the result was a work that to this day generates a lot of love-it-or-hate-it reactions. The first movement is intense…just listen to the first note, an absolutely furious C in the low strings and bassoons that sounds like one of those screams you let out while punching the steering wheel during rush hour. There are some beautiful episodes to be found, especially in the brass chorale and the yearning string response, but overwhelmingly this is musical Oxycodone. The scherzo takes a dramatic turn from bubbly to menacing, and the Largo was requested by Sibelius himself for performance at his funeral.
The finale is where the emotional state of the work really materializes. It has a similar trajectory as the scherzo, beginning with happiness (how can I be sad when there’s glockenspiel?!). But this time we don’t end up menacing. We end up resigned. And at least to my ears, it isn’t a peaceful or comfortable resignation like the kind you find in Mahler’s late works; it is a cynical, almost nihilistic resignation that no matter what you do, it’s never going to matter. I mean, the symphony ends mezzo-forte…after all we’ve been through musically, it just peters out and ends mezzo-forte! If that isn’t the most starkly naked “fuck it, dude, let’s go bowling” in music history, I just don’t know what is. For those of us who grow increasingly pessimistic about the world around us, this symphony is not so much our rallying cry as our consolation that we’ve seen it all before.
Recommended recording: I will almost always recommend Sir Alexander Gibson for Sibelius. His cycle with the Scottish National Orchestra is awesome throughout. Just get it. But you can find an individual disc coupled with the Symphony no. 1 here.
5) Symphony no. 4 by Anton Bruckner
Bruckner was a Romantic composer in time and place, but he was a medieval composer in spirit and action. He (along with Cesar Franck) is one of music history’s most saintly figures, almost cruelly naive. He didn’t have success with women. He was unsure of himself enough to allow seemingly well-meaning friends and colleagues to constantly influence the revisions of his compositions (there are no less than six different versions of the Fourth Symphony, for example). After a rehearsal for the premiere performance of the 4th, he gave Hans Richter money to buy himself a beer as a token of thanks.
But it is this naivety that makes Bruckner’s music so profound. Only he could dedicate a symphony to Wagner, one of the biggest douchebags to ever walk the Earth, then dedicate a symphony to God 14 years later. If it were anyone else, we would think it was phony as hell, but with Bruckner? Why wouldn’t he recognize his greatest musical influence and his greatest personal influence? It is that same spirit that makes his Fourth Symphony, the Romantic, so evocative and beautiful.
Bruckner himself suggested that the symphony was programmatic, and outlined a basic design: “In the first movement after a full night’s sleep the day is announced by the horn, 2nd movement song, 3rd movement hunting trio, musical entertainment of the hunters in the wood.” There is no program for the 4th movement, but who cares? We get the gist; this is music of Romance, as opposed to romance. It is not difficult to envisions knights and maidens and a great hunt and chivalry and all the wonderful things we associate with eating without utensils at Medieval Times (no mention of the less wonderful things we associate with that era, like the Plague, brutal murder in the name of religion, etc.). This symphony is a horn player’s dream. Horn begins the symphony announcing a new day. Horn is a key player in the song of the 2nd movement. Horns lead us off to hunt. Horn features prominently in the “folk festival” of the finale. Does this mean that I would have been a huge star in the 12th century? Yes, yes it does.
The Romantic symphony is arguably Bruckner’s most popular work, and it is the first of his symphonies to really coalesce all the distinct elements that we think of in his later works. Like most of Bruckner’s music, it moves at a slow emotional pace, constantly building tension and releasing it in an ever-evolving way, until you arrive at moments that completely overwhelm you (like the glorious brass chorale of the first movement, the fortissimo climax of the 2nd movement, or the coda of the finale). The pace can be an obstacle for some; my composition teacher in college, who was an otherwise brilliant man, absolutely could not stand Bruckner’s music. The payoff is rich, though. If I had a gun to my head, I’m not sure I would say that Bruckner is my favorite composer (of course, if I had a gun to my head, I wouldn’t be talking about music, but more likely crying, urinating in my pants, and begging for mercy). But if that same gun was to my head and I could only keep one composer’s music for the rest of my life, Bruckner would be it. Why?
Because the world needs balance. And for all the grief, cynicism, bitterness, and hopelessness that so much of the music of the late Romantic period and much of the 20th century, it’s a gift to be able to experience the simple adoration for life and beauty that Bruckner provides more than any other composer. Sibelius or Mahler is a great companion when you feel like you need the company of something to share in the overwhelming negativity we face every day. But thank God for Bruckner, who very gently and simply reminds us that maybe there’s something better out there waiting to call us home.
Recommended recording: There are so many quality recordings out there by so many notable Bruckner interpreters: Wand, Celibidache, Bohm, Jochum, Tintner, Kempe, et al. But I’m going to let my biases win out here and recommend my man Otmar Suitner and the Staatskapelle Berlin. Suitner’s reading is wonderfully precise, straightforward, and unpretentious, but it still has giant balls and is passionate as all hell. It’s a get-out-of-the-way-and-watch-the-master-do-his-thing interpretation, and it’s a spectacular result.
4) Symphony no. 4 by Robert Schumann
Schumann’s Fourth Symphony was actually the second symphony he wrote, but then he revised it into the current form in which we know it ten years later. Schumann much preferred the revision; apparently Brahms preferred the earlier version of the symphony, but what does he know about symphonies? I prefer the later version, because Schumann managed to better achieve what it seems he strove for, which was a unified single-movement thought process in a traditional four-movement symphonic structure. I’m not trying to say I know more than Brahms, but in this one case, and possibly in the case of the memorization of quotes from “The Big Lebowski,” I feel strongly that I am right.
There are many themes that weave in and out of this symphony: the introduction to the first movement hints at the movement’s principal theme, reappears in the second movement, serves as the scherzo theme (in an inverted form), and in its guise as the first movement’s principal theme, acts as an accompanimental figure in the finale. If I were to write a piece like this, people would say I’m lazy and can’t think of anything else cool. Since Schumann is an unqualified genius, it makes the work incredibly cohesive and bad ass. Oh, and the brass chorale that bridges the 3rd and 4th movements is one of the best moments in any symphony anywhere.
Best story to illustrate how cool a piece this is: the first time I heard was in the parking lot of a Best Buy. I was on my way to buy “Major League,” which had just come out on DVD, and on the radio I caught a broadcast of the Indianapolis Symphony right after the piece had started. I sat in the parking lot for 20 minutes to finish out the piece because I couldn’t stop listening, and by the time it was over, Best Buy had closed, and I had to make the trip again the next day. If you know how much I love “Major League,” you can infer how much I love Schumann 4.
Recommended recording: There are two approaches here. One is to shoot for one of the Mahler retuschen performances, the best of which is likely Riccardo Chailly and the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig. I worship Mahler, and his revisions are actually quite good and not nearly as intrusive as you might assume. But ultimately, it’s more satisfying to hear Schumann in his own orchestration words, and for that, I would recommend Leonard Bernstein in the old New York Philharmonic set from 1960. It’s pretty tough to track down because it was from that Sony Royal Edition set with the God awful watercolors from Prince Charles on the front, but it’s worth it for the sheer passion and momentum of the performance.
3) Symphony no. 4 by Gustav Mahler
The Fourth Symphony is the culmination of Mahler’s “Wunderhorn” period, that is to say the period in which he plowed through Des Knaben Wunderhorn for source material the way I attack a quality breakfast buffet. He certainly found plenty in there: more than a dozen songs and ultimately copious amounts of thematic material for his first four symphonies (likewise, between hand-sliced premium ham, bacon, over-medium eggs, Belgian waffles, danishes, fresh fruit and yogurt, and a refreshing mimosa, I find plenty at the buffet: sustenance and ultimately heartburn and gastrointestinal discomfort). Fittingly, Mahler’s 4th ends with perhaps his greatest Wunderhorn setting. But in order to really appreciate it (and a lot of Mahler for that matter), you really need context. The saying goes that Mahler’s symphonies constitute one giant work. If that’s the case, nowhere is that more true than in the Fourth.
The first movement is an episodic jaunt that begins a delightfully odd four bars in which sleigh bells give us the pulse while woodwinds wiggle around on sixteenth notes until the violins pick up the main theme…with a ritard that the winds and sleigh bells don’t have. It’s a very uncomfortable measure, but in a way it makes perfect sense (of course it does…would a borderline psychopath obsessed with detailed scores accidentally do anything?). The movement moves along at what I would call a crisp amble, with some wonderfully snappy rhythms and grand, rich climaxes. There’s a spot in the development that illustrates the whole context/one giant symphony thing: after a lush orchestral climax, the music unfolds to straight 8th notes under a triplet rhythm in the trumpet that we will see again at the beginning of the 5th symphony and subsequently on every trumpet audition in history. The coda of the movement is a relaxed reflection on where we’ve been before one final dash to the finish line.
The 2nd movement calls for a solo violin, to be played tuned up a step so that it can sound like the devil’s fiddle. And it does. The violin solos are very unnerving, sounding a bit like that feeling you get when you’re around someone drunk, only you don’t know them super well so you can’t recall if they’re one of the angry drunks, the creepily silent drunks, or the “I love you, man!” drunks. The violin weaves in and out of the texture like an apparition, while the orchestra plays a charmingly twisted “scherzo” that is at turns menacing and bubbly, until a beautiful modulation to D major 2/3 of the way through the movement that sounds like a light switch being flipped on (seriously, it’s a really remarkable moment). Mahler, clearly concerned about rising energy costs, will not allow us to keep the lights on, though, and the movement ends in a bit of a shadow.
The Adagio is one of many Mahler is known for (they even released a disc of Mahler Adagios conducted by Karajan years ago, because, you know, we need that). It has a little bit of the vibe of the finale of the 6th symphony to it, with some of Mahler’s most delicate and gorgeous music ultimately crashing down in a heap. The music has the characteristic of a procession, insistent in its forward progress, but never in a hurry (see the analogy of me and the buffet from earlier); long string lines glide over a pizzicato figure in the basses that serves as a rhythmic motto for the entire movement. The music runs into destruction in the form of a giant downward glissando in the strings and a descending line in the trumpet that comes to rest on a powerful unison before the cellos continue us on our path. We find that the hymn becomes a set of variations, including a section of accelerating tempi that makes the solemn procession sound more like a country dance. The movement climaxes with a luminous statement in the brass, with the timpani pounding the pizzicato bass figure. After this dramatic moment, the movement ends peacefully in the stratosphere, as if we’ve arrived at the Pearly Gates themselves.
The finale is Mahler’s 1892 setting of Das himmlische leben, which translates to The himmlische leben (just kidding! It means “The Heavenly Life.”). Originally written to be performed by a boy soprano, it is now performed almost exclusively by world-famous divas. And we recognize this music…the entire symphony is borne of it. That smooth clarinet melody at the beginning? Why, that’s what the horns were blasting with their bells up 5 minutes ago! In fact, some of the Third Symphony was borne of this music. Mahler’s initial conception for the Symphony no. 3 was to have this song as its conclusion; you may recognize the chorale from the fifth movement of the Third here. This is tender and powerful music, filled with a child’s image of heaven (“Good greens of every sort grow in the heavenly vegetable patch; good asparagus, string beans, and whatever we want. Whole dishfuls are set for us!”). Of course, this music and text becomes infinitely more powerful when you are familiar with another of Mahler’s Wunderhorn settings, Das irdische leben (The Earthly Life), which is filled with a child’s view of a life of poverty and hunger (“Give me bread or I will die.”). This movement provides the perfect capper not just to this work, but to Mahler’s entire early output in which he wrestled with existential questions like no other composer before him. The simple joy of a child can show us the way more often than we know.
Recommended recording: There are two recordings that I am aware of that use a boy soprano for the last movement. One is this one, with Anton Nanut conducting the Ljubljana Symphony with soloist Max Emanuel Cencic. The other, significantly more famous, is Leonard Bernstein with the Concertgebouworkest and soloist Helmut Wittek from Bernstein’s 1980’s DG cycle. Both are good, and it’s neat to hear the boy soprano. But in the end you’re best served going with the now-traditional soprano approach. There are obviously hundreds of recordings, and I like several. But this DVD performance with Bernard Haitink and the Berlin Philharmonic has the best soprano this music has ever run across in Sylvia McNair. McNair gives one of those performances that is, in my opinion, without equal in this piece, and it isn’t even really all that close. The rest of the symphony is also incredibly well-played, and Haitink produces a passionate but easily and perfectly controlled reading.
2) Symphony no. 4 by Pyotr Ilyich Tschaikovsky
With apologies to Tschaikovsky’s first three efforts at writing a symphony (although I confess to loving the 2nd), he really went to a whole other level in his final three. Gone was the desire to maintain strict symphonic forms and in its place was a freer, more Liszty-symphonic-poemy union between large-scale musical structure and straight ahead story-telling emotional weight. It is no coincidence that this switch took place in and around the time of the dissolution of Tschaikovsky’s marriage, when emotions probably ran high, sparks flew, etc. This is not unlike the time I abandoned the structure of my budget to buy an XBox on emotional impulse because I was distraught over the 49ers losing in the playoffs to the Packers in 2002.
But what a great decision; Tschaikovsky’s Fourth is one of the all-time legends in the symphony world, a true crowd pleaser (watch the DVD of the Leningrad Phil under Rozhdestvensky at the BBC Proms circa 1971 to see some hot crowd-pleasing action of the highest magnitude) chock full of really great moments. Not the least of these moments is the opening of the symphony, one of the single most arresting themes around. It sets the stage perfectly for an epic first movement filled with whatever the Russian phrase for sturm und drang is, but also with a delightfully mysterious second theme in the bassoon. The second movement is arguably the best melody ever written (sure enough, played by the oboe), a tune so eminently whistlable that, should you find yourself serving a life sentence doing hard labor on a chain gang, will help ease the burden on your soul. The scherzo is an episodic jaunt through the orchestra’s sections, with a pizzicato ostinato in the strings, a swinging country tune in the woodwinds, and a march in the brass that sounds like it could be for a unit composed entirely of pandas. The finale is the textbook definition of rip-roaring (see my upcoming textbook “Pointlessly Confusing Hyphenated Words” for details), with a Russian folk song as its theme and a whole lot of string notes as its ploy to get people to clap before the last note actually stops.
Recommended recording: Hard not to enjoy the relentlessly powerful performance from Yevgeny Mravinsky and the Leningrad Philharmonic.
1) Symphony no. 4 by Johannes Brahms
After being sufficiently freaked out by the shadow of Beethoven’s legacy to work on his debut symphony for 20 years, Brahms sure didn’t waste time making his own mark on the genre. His 2nd symphony came a year after the 1st, and he wrote two more within a decade. Each of them is now a staple of the repertoire for every orchestra on the face of the planet. The knock on Brahms is that he was a “traditionalist,” that he did not go with the prevailing trends in music espoused by Wagner, Liszt, etc., but instead stuck to old forms and styles. Maybe that’s true. But even if it is, Brahms’ Fourth Symphony proves that it doesn’t matter what you’re doing as long as you dominate it. And the Fourth is dominant; it’s one of the benchmarks by which other symphonies before and since are judged. Turns out Brahms can cast his own large, bearded shadow.
The piece begins almost tentatively, with a gorgeous yet mysterious theme alternating between rising and falling intervals in the violins. The falling intervals will end up re-appearing later in the transition back into the recapitulation in one of music’s all-time great this-stasis-is-making-me-lean-forward moments. The second theme of the movement is a fanfare motive with some really nicely punctuated triplets in it that make every wind player I’ve ever known who’s performed this piece happy. In the abstract, it would seem like this movement would have a really positive, uplifting tone to it, but in fact it probably ends in as much darkness as anything Brahms ever composed. Fortunately, he turns the light back in on the second movement, a beautiful Andante that is probably my favorite thing Brahms ever wrote. It has two primary themes, one a horn call heard at the movement’s outset, and the other a long, wistful cello theme that literally switch appearances (like Face-Off!…I wonder which theme is John Travolta and which is Nic Cage): the horn call morphing into a sweet clarinet melody, the cello theme getting the balls-out string treatment. The music historian Philipp Spitta claimed that this was the finest slow movement ever composed. I must say, however, that one look at his WikiPedia page will show you that he looks an awful lot like Brahms. Conspiracy? The raucous third movement is the closest Brahms ever came to composing an out-and-out scherzo in his symphonies. It’s a lot weightier than a Beethoven scherzo, but what it lacks in mobility and dexterity it makes up for in sheer rhythmic intensity.
But remember when I said that thing about Brahms being a “traditionalist?” Well, here you go. For the culmination of his orchestral compositions, Brahms chose to write a passacaglia, which is essentially a series of variations over an ostinato bass, a practice that dates back to Frescobaldi, who died in 1643. But it doesn’t matter…Brahms only managed to come up with probably the greatest contribution to the form, and one of the very coolest movements of any symphony anywhere. After the (relative) fun of the 3rd movement, we are plunged immediately back into serious territory with an eight-bar chorale showing us the repeated ostinato we’ll be dealing with for the next ten minutes. There are a total of 31 variants in the movement, including a really beautiful slower section culminating in a luminous trombone chorale, and a phenomenally exciting climax with rushing triplet figures. The work ends with a burst of adrenaline, but not so much adrenaline that we can escape our E minor fate. This is not, after all, the modernists seeking redemption. This is Brahms, whose music moves us not necessarily through appeals to our most human emotions, but through the detachment of someone capable of perfection of craft actually achieving that perfection in a 40-minute storm of awesome.
Recommended recording: This recording with Carlos Kleiber conducting the Vienna Philharmonic is pretty highly regarded by everyone, myself included. Kleiber really seems to get the music’s ebb and flow, and it’s a very exciting result.
Apologies to: Both of Prokofiev’s 4th symphonies, Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy, Hovhaness’ underrated Symphony no. 4 for band, Arnold Bax, Philip Glass’ Heroes Symphony, Dvorak, Lutoslawski, Hugo Alfven, Schubert’s Tragic, Mathias Vermeulen, Vaughan Williams, and Sergei Taneyev. It’s tough sledding here in Symphony no. 4 territory. Better luck in Symphony no. 3!