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Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98 (1884-85)

Notes by Michael-Thomas Foumai

I. Allegro non troppo

II. Andante moderato

III. Allegro giocoso

IV. Allegro energico e passionate


In 1884, Johannes Brahms began composing his final symphonic offering, the tragic Symphony No. 4 in E minor. Brahms's four symphonies span thirty years of the composer's life, a backdrop to the deep and loving friendship with Clara Wieck-Schumann. He was in love, and while Clara may have reciprocated, the two stopped short of becoming intimate.


King David Kalākaua ruled the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi in 1884, and October 16 marked the death of Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop (1831-1884), the last descendant of the Kamehameha family. Born Pauahi Pākī, she was the great-granddaughter of Kamehameha the Great. Upon her passing, Pauahi's will established the Kamehameha Schools, and her husband, businessman Charles Reed Bishop, founded The Bishop Museum in her memory. 


Mirroring the union of Clara and Robert Schumann, Pauahi was expected to marry Prince Lot Kapuāiwa (Kamehameha V), but against her parent's objections, married Bishop. In memory of her beloved hānai sister, Liliʻuokalani composed "A Chant." It was performed at the state funeral by the choir of the Kawaiaha'o Church on November 2, 1884.



Robert Schumann hailed Brahms as the next Beethoven in 1853. In her diary, Clara described the dashing young Brahms as "one of those who comes as if sent straight from God. He will first find the true field for his genius when he begins to write for orchestra." However, one does not simply become Beethoven. Brahms took 21 years to compose the First Symphony (1855-76), and with its success, he overcame his apprehensions, speedily producing the next three in nine years. 


With each new symphony, Clara lovingly encouraged and mentored Brahms in letter form. Upon receiving the piano version of Symphony No. 2 in D major, Clara wrote from Berlin on December 24, 1877, "I received the Symphony with the greatest joy. If only I could keep it written as it is by your own hand, what a magnificent possession it would be." Six years later, Brahms posted his Symphony No.3 in F major, and on February 11, 1884, Clara replied, "Dear Johannes, my heart is so full. I have spent such happy hours with your wonderful creation. What a work, what a poem. All the movements seem to be one piece, one beat of the heart."



Brahms began his last symphony at 52; he had arrived at the age when Beethoven completed his final Ninth Symphony. Where Brahms's First Symphony conquered a C-minor fate with C-major (à la Beethoven's Fifth), the Fourth is grounded in an E-minor purgatory, entrapped from beginning to end; fate now conquers. 


In 1854 and 1893, Brahms dedicated the Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann, Op.9, and then the Intermezzo No. 2, Op. 118, to Clara. While in different keys, they share the same key signature (they are relative, an expression of Robert and Clara Schumann). Should E-minor represent Brahms, a significant harmony to the Schumann pieces (structural, dominant, but unrelated), its metaphor is a fated platonic friendship.


Brahms conducted the premiere on October 25, 1885, with the Ducal Court Orchestra. Between rehearsals, he wrote Clara of the production from Meiningen, Germany, "I have worked long and hard at it, thinking of you all the time and wondering whether it would not perhaps prove a very doubtful pleasure to you." The score runs 40 minutes and calls for two flutes, a piccolo, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, a contrabassoon, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, a triangle, and strings.



A cascade of lovesick melancholy begins the E-minor Allegro. Violins sigh and exhale in a chain of leaping breaths, lifted by the flourishing rapture of lower strings. The windswept pastoral qualities didn't escape Clara when she played through the piano score. Writing to Brahms from Frankfort on December 15, 1885, "My heart is full to overflowing about your Symphony. It has given me some wonderful moments, and its beauty and richness of color have held me spellbound. I scarcely know which movement I prefer–the first dreamy one, with its soft undulating emotional depths (it is as though one lay in springtime among the blossoming flowers and joy and sorrow filled one's soul in turn)."



"One slips into dreamland," writes Clara of the second movement. Something ancient, something forgotten, begins the E-major daydream. It's not totally in E major or E minor; it's somewhere in-between; it's modal (E Phrygian), music of the middle ages. The movement unfolds with similar duality, traversing moments lyrically intimate with passages of rustic vigor. Solemn horns present a recurring stately figure, a processional and slow dance, strolling and sometimes running through a gallery of sweet and long-lost reverie.  



"I have grown to love the third movement more owing to its exquisite cheerfulness. Oh, if only I could talk to you about it with the score before us!" writes Clara. The scherzo, in duple time, takes a much livelier, animated excursion with a vivaciously teenage spirit. There are moments of sheer bombastic posturing; the orchestra becomes a super-piano. Block chords speak with the might of a pianist laying down power chords to a concerto. The C-major romp is short-lived, its exuberance a fleeting memory of youthful ambition.



The first eight chords of the finale lay the foundation for a symphonic cathedral. The main eight notes (presented in the flutes) form the passacaglia theme, a series of variations on a recurring line woven through all fibers of the orchestra. Clara recognized its sacred architecture, writing it is "so grandly constructed, with its enormous variety, and, despite its complicated workmanship, is so full of profound passion, softening down wonderfully towards the middle, only to burst out with fresh power later on!" 


Clara championed the music of J.S. Bach, and the passacaglia line is taken from the composer's cantata Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich (For Thee, I Lord, I Long), BWV 150. Brahms distanced himself from Christian doctrine (as demonstrated by the Requiem text), so it posits that the quotation speaks to a humanistic longing. Thirty-two variations comprise the entire finale, a lifetime in scope. Brahms met Clara in 1853 and completed the work in 1885, a friendship thirty-two years in the making.


If tragedy permeates the work, it resides in a passionate relationship bound to a platonic partnership. As a young 21-year-old man, Brahms wrote to Clara, "I would gladly write to you only by means of music, but I have things to say to you today which music could not express." If music can express the inexpressible, the finale does so in thirty-two ways.


Johannes Brahms was born in Hamburg, Germany, on May 7, 1833, and died in Vienna, Austria, on April 3, 1897.


© 2020 Michael-Thomas Foumai

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