Symphony no. 2, mvt. 4 by Johannes Brahms
It’s pretty obvious that Brahms was going to end up on here at some point. It’s also pretty obvious that choosing a single one of the sixteen symphonic movements that Brahms composed could essentially come down to a coin flip if you lived in a dimension with 16-sided coins. Brahms probably has the highest compositional “batting average” of anyone who ever lived and wrote music; pretty much every surviving work is a varying degree of great. The symphonies in particular are each among the very finest in the entire output, and not surprisingly they’re performed with Metamucil-like regularity.
So why the finale of the second over all the other options? For me, it’s because it’s somehow the most Brahmsian and yet least Brahmsian thing he ever wrote all at once. It stands out for it’s wild and downright manic energy, seemingly a departure from the hyper-controlled sense that Brahms is normally associated with. And yet that control is firmly in place structurally as you would expect it to be. Where Brahms really lets his hair down (as if he needed to do anything other than look like that picture at all times) is in the pace – this is the fastest of his symphony movements and it has the word “spirit” in it – and momentum. For my money this is the most “forward moving” thing Brahms ever wrote across all genres, and it always feels like it’s building towards something even bigger and ballsier (and the reason for that is that it is!). Even when it chills out for a bit in the middle and has those lazy triplets rippling through the band, it still gives you the sense that some shit is about to go down.
And it does. After the re-statement of the principal theme of the movement, the band erupts again, only this time the entire string section plays this wicked fucking eighth note line (in unison at first before branching off a bit) that’s as effervescent as it is bellicose, and yes I chose those words on purpose. It’s about as rad a four bars as you’ll find and it makes me wish I played viola. But it keeps on going and ultimately builds to an absolute sonic rampage of a coda that explodes with nuclear intensity. The descending trombone line, the frenzied string accompaniment, the trumpet punctuations, all leading to an epic final 16 bars in which the trumpets machine gun their way through some eighth notes only to be overtaken by a trombone chord that sounds like a God damn airplane taking off in the back of the orchestra.
I’ve been listening to a lot of Suppe and Weber and Rossini lately, especially during work, because what their music may lack in substance it makes up for in unadulterated excitement. Brahms is almost literally the musical opposite of those three men (and others of their ilk), but in this finale he ALMOST lets himself get to that point. If this finale weren’t orchestrated like it was handed down from the mountains by God him-or-her-self, it’d be even more apparent. As it is, it’s further evidence that when it comes to writing music, symphonic or otherwise, any discussion that involves the word “best” or “greatest” has to include the name Johannes Fucking Brahms.
I’ve been trying to find just the individual movements on YouTube in the spirit of the entire exercise, but this performance is just too good to pass up. It’s a lotta dudes (lotta dudes, man), but one of them is Karl Bohm. Enjoy, and as always, crank that shit up.