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1885 – Brahms Symphony No. 4


1885 Johannes Brahms Symphony No. 4 in E minor
Instrumentation Strings, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns,  2 trumpets and timpani
Movements I: Allegro non troppo (e) II: Andante moderato (e) III: Allegro giocoso (c) IV: Allegro energico e appassionate (e)
Overview This symphony was Brahms’ last and most intense symphony. It has a great sense of purpose and direction that carries it through from the wistful, sighing opening to the powerful sense of tragedy at the end.

See a full score / Watch on Youtube

A) Overall form In comparison to Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique or a Liszt tone poem, the overall form of this symphony is as traditional as his previous three, but that does not mean Brahms is not being innovative.

The last movement is bold both in adopting a very old-fashioned Baroque Passacaglia form (see below) and also in its emphatic, uncompromising ending, which is in the E minor in which the symphony started, rather than resolving to a triumphant E major:


I) Melody and theme The work has high level of integration across the whole symphony, but the opening of the first movement in particular is a masterpiece of motivic economy. The first eight notes of the melody only contains falling thirds (or their inversion – the rising sixth) and the next eight notes contain only rising thirds. It is an extraordinary idea for a melody and what is interesting is Brahms manages to make this highly analytical melody into a heartfelt series of sighs that sound anything but academic (thirds are an important interval elsewhere in the work as well). Listen to the opneing of the first movement (see annotated score):

E) 4th / Finale Although Brahms’ harmony and motivic working is complex and sophisticated he was, compared to Liszt and other contemporaries, seen as a relatively conservative composer. He was very interested in the music of the past and in the finale of this symphony he manages to incorporate the Baroque idea of a passacaglia (a repeating melody around which the music is built). The distinctive eight-bar idea underpins the last movement providing a structure around which the powerful Romantic harmonies swell.

In this excerpt from the score you can see each successive eight bars is based on the eight-note idea E F# G A A# B B E – first in the flutes then in bar 9 in the violins and then moving around the orchestra. Listen to the opening of the last movement (annotated score of beginning of last movement):