Symphony No. 4 (Brahms)

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The Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98 by Johannes Brahms is the last of his symphonies. Brahms began working on the piece in Mürzzuschlag. then in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in 1884, just a year after completing his Symphony No. 3, and completed it in 1885.


The symphony is scored for two flutes (one doubling on piccolo), two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, triangle (third movement only), and strings.


The symphony is divided into four movements with the following tempo markings:

  1. Allegro non troppo (E minor)
  2. Andante moderato (E major)
  3. Allegro giocoso (C major)
  4. Allegro energico e passionato (E minor)

A typical performance lasts about 40 minutes.


First movement: Allegro non troppo

This movement is in a conventional first movement sonata form:

Section Key Description
Exposition: Bar 1 Primary Theme E minor A sense of rhythmic instability starting on the anacrusis. This relatively fragmented melody forms a descending sequence in the upper instruments in dialogue with the lower instruments. The notes (taken out of register) outline a descending major 3rd - B, G, E, C, A, F sharp, etc. - a unifying motif for this work.
Bar 19 Transition Goes from E minor to the dominant B minor Starts by fragmenting the P theme
Bar 53 Medial Caesura Introduces 4 bars of caesura fill, a rhythmic pattern in the wood winds
Bar 57 Secondary Theme 1 B minor Initially in the cellos, then passed up into the violins.
Bar 95 Secondary Theme 2 B major - parallel major of B minor In the woodwinds.
Bar 107 Coda B major Develops the rhythm introduced in the transition from pp to ff.
Bar 137 Re-transition Lead from B major into E minor Takes from P theme material
Bar 145 Development Various It starts with a statement of the P theme before leading away into a development
Bar 246 Recapitulation E minor It starts with an augmented statement of the P theme in the upper instruments with C major harmony, but then resumes the standard form of a recapitulation.

Second movement: Andante moderato

A requiem style movement with a phrygian sound from the horns, this has a modified sonata form with no development section.

Third movement: Allegro giocoso

This which was written last, resounds with a triangle. It is also in sonata form.

Fourth movement: Allegro energico e passionato

This last movement is notable as a rare example of a symphonic passacaglia, which is similar to a chaconne with the slight difference that the subject can appear in more voices than the bass. For the repeating theme, Brahms adapted the chaconne theme in the closing movement of Johann Sebastian Bach's cantata, Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich, BWV 150.

An analysis of this last movement by Walter Frisch provides yet further interpretation to Brahms' structure of this work, by giving sections sonata form dimensions.

The symphony is rich in allusions, most notably to various Beethoven compositions. The symphony may well have been inspired by the play Antony and Cleopatra that Brahms had been researching at the time.[1]

Arnold Schoenberg, in his essay Brahms the Progressive (Brahms is often characterized as being a conservative composer), pointed out several thematic relationships in the score, as does Malcolm MacDonald in his biography of the composer. The first half of the chaconne theme is anticipated in the bass during the coda at an important point of the preceding movement; and the first movement's descending thirds, transposed by a fifth, appear in counterpoint during one of the final variations of the chaconne.


The work was given its premiere in Meiningen on October 25, 1885 with Brahms himself conducting. The piece had earlier been given to a small private audience in a version for two pianos, played by Brahms and Ignaz Brüll. Brahms' friend and biographer Max Kalbeck, reported that the critic Eduard Hanslick, acting as one of the page-turners, exclaimed on hearing the first movement at this performance: "For this whole movement I had the feeling that I was being given a beating by two incredibly intelligent people."[2] Hanslick later spoke more approvingly of it, however.[citation needed]

Progressive rock group Yes' keyboardist Rick Wakeman used part of the symphony on the instrumental "Cans and Brahms" from the 1971 album Fragile.


  1. ^ "Brahms, Johannes ." Britannica Encyclopedia, from Encyclopædia Britannica Deluxe Edition 2004 CD-ROM. Copyright © 1994-2003 Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. May 30, 2003
  2. ^ Frisch, Walter (2003). Brahms: the Four Symphonies. Yale music masterworks. Yale University Press. p. 116. ISBN 9780300099652.

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