Gazing into the Void: Brahms’ Symphony No. 4

Gazing into the Void: Brahms’ Symphony No. 4

Above: Detail from Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog.

This Thanksgiving weekend, the Houston Symphony performs a program of music by composers associated with Vienna: Mozart, Brahms and Suppé. Learn more about Brahms’ powerful Symphony No. 4, a work of profound depth that many critics regard as his greatest masterpiece.

During the summers of 1884 and 1885, Brahms composed his Symphony No. 4, working secretly in a quiet Austrian town in the Alps as was his usual practice. Despite the beautiful surroundings and his widespread success (he was generally regarded as Germany’s greatest living composer), the work that emerged would be one of the darkest symphonies in the repertoire.

The town of Mürzzuschlag as it appeared in 1900. Brahms wrote his Fourth Symphony there 15 years earlier.

For all its warmth and beauty, Brahms’ Fourth has an undeniably tragic character. Many have speculated as to its source. Perhaps Brahms simply wanted to compose a symphony that would contrast with his previous ones, which all end in major keys. Alternatively, the contemplation of Greek tragedy may have influenced the serious character of the piece: while working on the symphony, he devoured a new translation of Sophocles. More convincing, however, is the melancholy vein that had been in Brahms’ personality since he was a young man, as letters, his friends’ memoirs and even his music attest. Though he would live twelve more years, Brahms may have also been contemplating his own mortality as he began his fifth decade of life. In a letter to his publisher, for instance, Brahms gives instructions for what is to be done with the score in case “the most human thing should happen to me” before he could hear his symphony performed only a few months later.

Brahms, photographed in 1885.

Musically, Brahms’ Fourth continued the advance of the composer’s astounding technique; many critics today regard it as his finest work in the genre. Each melody evolves seamlessly and organically from what came before, creating a complex web of musical interrelations. Brahms’ language has also become incredibly focused and succinct; he says as much in a few measures as other composers do in several phrases. Combined with the work’s seriousness, this new richness and density caused Brahms to worry about how the symphony would be received. In a letter to the conductor Hans von Bülow, Brahms himself jokingly acknowledged his fears regarding the work: “I’m really afraid that it tastes like the climate here. The cherries don’t ripen in these parts; you wouldn’t eat them!”

His fears were further exacerbated by a trial run-through of the symphony on two pianos for a group of his closest friends and admirers. After the first movement, the critic Eduard Hanslick, a steadfast champion of Brahms’ music, confessed that “Throughout the whole movement I felt as if I were being beaten by two terribly clever people.” Fortunately, when Brahms conducted the premiere in Meiningen on October 25, 1885, the audience seemed to understand the work perfectly and greeted it with vociferous applause, and it has remained a cornerstone of the symphonic repertoire ever since.

The Music

The symphony begins with a simple melody based on falling thirds. Everything that follows grows from this hauntingly beautiful theme, which seems to breathe, or perhaps to ebb and flow like the sea:



The ever evolving progress of the theme is soon interrupted by a fanfare-like motif in the woodwinds. The symphony is full of these fanfare-motifs, which recall a romantic era of heroic knights errant. The horn call introduces a new, searching melody in the cellos. Its long phrases contrast with the heavy, strange accompaniment. Soon the horn calls interrupt again, leading to sweeter melodies scored for the shifting colors of the woodwinds. This idyll is cut short by an ominous, mysterious rustling in the strings, after which the fanfares crescendo in a heroic passage.

The opening melody then reappears, but leads to a more developmental section. Intense passages full of struggle alternate with quiet, mysterious ones as the main themes interact. When the opening melody reappears, it is disguised at first, lengthened and interrupted by the strange, rustling harmonies we heard before. When it resumes its original form, it seems as if it is already in progress, creating a sense of musical déjà vu. After a reprise of the other themes, the heroic fanfares return, but now lead to a harrowing storm. The opening theme returns in a distorted form as the movement rushes to its end.

The Two Crowns by Sir Frank Dicksee. The painting also has a “serious face behind the carnival mask that it wears on its surface.”

A profound nocturne, the slow second movement begins with a new fanfare/horn call-motif. Its unusual sonority comes from its use of the Phrygian mode, a scale common in the medieval and Renaissance eras. This unique coloration adds to the Romantic, archaic atmosphere of the symphony. The opening horn call soon becomes a reflective melody in the woodwinds accompanied by pizzicato strings. After a tender, contrasting melody appears in the violins, a more forceful motif morphs into a gorgeous melody in the cellos (the cello melody uses the same notes as the forceful motif, only at half-speed).

After the main melody reappears in the violas, the horn call returns with increasing intensity, climaxing in a hammering passage for full orchestra based on the forceful motif. The beautiful cello melody then consoles us, this time played by the violins (traditionally played on their lowest, most expressive string). The movement ends with a richly orchestrated version of the horn call with strange harmonies that inspire a sense of wonder.

Marked “Allegro giocoso” (fast and playful), the third movement barges in with a jollity marked by the addition of piccolo and triangle to the orchestra’s colors. Brash fanfares alternate with softer, more playful episodes. A mischievous sense of humor and adventure prevails, and the music is full of surprises. Brahms’ friend and first biographer, Max Kalbeck, heard the sounds of a “public festival” in this music, and sensed a “satirical purpose under the heavily applied good humor,” referring to “the serious face behind the carnival mask that it wears on its surface.” He linked the movement to a quote by Goethe: “the greatest pleasure is most tempting only when it presses close to danger and enjoys the pleasantly fearful sweet sensations in its vicinity.”

Grand Finale

Ending the diversion of the previous movement, the finale begins with an ominous chorale that features the trombones, which Brahms reserved for this moment. The melody line of the chorale was adapted from the bass line of a cantata by Bach that Brahms discovered while helping to edit Bach’s works (Brahms added one chromatic note in between the fourth and fifth notes of Bach’s bass line). The words from Bach’s original cantata were “All my days which pass in suffering God ends at last in joy.”

Another connection to Bach is found in the structure, a chaconne, a kind of theme and variations popular in the 16th and 17th centuries. Brahms had used the chaconne form to create a joyous finale for his Haydn Variations, but this time he put the ancient form to a different purpose. Years before composing this symphony, Brahms had created a left-hand only piano arrangement of the chaconne from Bach’s Partita for Solo Violin in D minor. The furious string crossings in the violins in one variation echo the style of Bach’s own violin music, and like Bach’s chaconne, the variations are arranged in a pattern with a contrasting middle section. Taking a slower tempo, Brahms’ middle section begins with a heartbreaking, fragile flute solo. When the flute solo ends, the music shifts to major for a serene but bittersweet set of variations.

Suddenly, the opening chorale returns with devastating force. The music becomes increasingly violent and desperate as it races to the end. The variations take many forms, some pleading, angry, or terrifying, but underneath the chorale is always there. In 1909, the conductor Felix Weingartner wrote of the finale that “I cannot rid myself of the impression of an implacable fate, that a great phenomenon, whether it be an individual, or a whole people, is drifting inexorably toward destruction….The conclusion of this movement, burning with shattering tragedy, is a true orgy of destruction, a terrible counterpart to the transports of joy at the end of the last symphony of Beethoven.” Given the course that German history would take in the twentieth century, such a reading seems almost prophetic.



The last orchestral concert Brahms attended was a Vienna Philharmonic performance of his own Fourth Symphony given at the Musikverein a month before his death. When the ailing Brahms, sick with liver cancer, appeared at the end of the performance, the applause was thunderous. Florence May, who met Brahms and became his first English language biographer, described what happened: “Tears ran down his cheeks as he stood there […] and through the audience there was a feeling as of a stifled sob, for each knew that he was saying farewell. Another outburst of applause and yet another; one more acknowledgment from the master, and Brahms and his Vienna had parted forever.” —Calvin Dotsey

Don’t miss Brahms’ Symphony No. 4 at the Houston Symphony on November 23, 24 and 25, 2018. Get tickets and more information at

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

2024–25 Subscriptions On Sale Now!

Subscribe today for savings, priority seating, presale access to Yo-Yo Ma, and special perks!