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ClassicsOnline Home » BRAHMS: Symphony No. 4 / Tragic Overture
Johannes Brahms (1833 - 1897)
Symphony No. 4 in E Minor, Op. 98
Academic Festival Overture, Op. 80
Tragic Overture, Op. 81
In 1853 Robert Schumann detected in the young Brahms "a man singled out to make articulate an ideal way of the highest expression of our time". Here indeed was the long awaited successor to Beethoven, and Schumann was prepared, like some St. John the Baptist, to declare the fact. The "veiled symphonies in sound" that Schumann had heard were not transformed into real symphonies until relatively late in Brahms's life. Much, after all, had been expected of him, and this may explain in some measure his relative diffidence, his distrust of his own abilities.
Brahms was born in Hamburg in 1833. His father was a musician, a double bass player, and his mother a seamstress some 17 years older than her husband. The family was poor, and as a boy Brahma earned money by playing the piano in dockside taverns for the entertainment of sailors. Nevertheless his talent brought him support, and teaching from Eduard Marxsen, to whom he later dedicated his B Flat Piano Concerto, although claiming to have learned nothing from him.
After a period earning a living in Hamburg as a teacher and as a dance saloon pianist, Brahms first emerged as a pianist and as a composer in 1853, when he went on a brief tour with the refugee Hungarian violinist Ede Remenyi, later to be appointed solo violinist to Queen Victoria. In Hanover he met the already famous young virtuoso violinist Joseph Joachim and with the latter's introduction visited Liszt in Weimar. The later visit to Schumann in Duesseldorf, again brought about through Joachim, had more far-reaching results. Schumann was soon to suffer a mental break-down, leading to his death in 1856 in an asylum. Brahms became a firm friend of Clara Schumann and remained so until her death in 1896.
The greater part of Brahms's career was to be spent in Vienna, where he finally settled in 1863, after earlier seasonal employment at the small court of Detmold and intermittent periods spent in Hamburg. In Vienna he established a pattern of life that was to continue until his death in 1897. He appeared as a pianist, principally in his own compositions, played with more insight than accuracy, and impressed the public with a series of compositions of strength, originality and technical perfection. Here was a demonstration that, contrary to the view of Wagner or Liszt, there was still much to be said in the traditional forms of music. Beethoven's Ninth Symphony was not the last word. Critics, indeed, hailed Brahms's First Symphony in 1876 as Beethoven's Tenth. Brahms came to occupy a unique position in Vienna, his eccentricities and gruff tactlessness tolerated as Beethoven's had been, his musical achievement unquestioned, except by the fanatical supporters of Wagner.
In 1877 Brahms had refused the honorary doctorate offered him by the University of Cambridge, since he had no wish to travel to England to receive it. Two years later, on 11th March, 1879, the University of Breslau offered him the same honour, a proposal he acknowledged with a post-card, until it was pointed out by the Music Director of the University that some musical token of gratitude was required of him. In response to the citation that had declared him the chief composer of serious music in Germany, Brahms wrote what he was to describe as a cheerful medley of student songs in the manner of Suppé, an unflattering summary of a work that has much more to be said for it, the Academic Festival Overture.
For his new Overture Brahms made use of four well known songs, Wir hatten gebauet, Der Landesvater, Was kommt dort von der Hoeh'. and Gaudeamus igitur. The first performance at Breslau University in 1881, with the composer conducting, was received with great enthusiasm by the students, for whose enjoyment it seems to have been intended. The title seemed to Brahms too heavy, and he himself was to refer to the piece as his Janissary Overture, alluding to the use of triangle, cymbals and bass drum, a traditional feature of supposedly Turkish music. In spite of his reservations, it was to remain with its first title, but in mood more Festive than Academic.
The Tragic Overture seems to have been intended as a companion piece to the Academic Festival Overture. It was written in 1880, its sombre colours belied by the apparent contentment of the composer, who had composed the work during his idyllic summer holiday at Bad Ischl. Material for the Overture was not new, dating from some ten years earlier, the period of the Liebeslieder Waltzes and the Alto Rhapsody, sketches for which survive in the same notebook. Its immediate purpose, in 1880, was probably to serve as a prelude to a new production of Goethe's Faust at the Burgtheater in Vienna.
Brahms wrote much of his music during summer holidays spent outside Vienna. In 1884 and 1885 he spent the summer months at Muerzzuschlag, a pleasant little town within easy reach of the capital. Here he was visited by many friends and enjoyed the society of the industrialist Richard Fellinger and his wife. The latter mothered the bachelor composer, knitting his stockings and making sure that he had his favourite dishes when he visited her house, while Fellinger himself had electric light installed in the rooms that Brahms had rented.
The first two movements of the Fourth Symphony were written there in 1884 and the work was completed the following year. At first Brahms's friends were unsure of its quality, when it was played over privately in a version for piano duet. Hanslick remarked that he found the first movement reminded him of two very clever people cudgelling one another, and the composer himself had written with his usual diffidence to his former pupil and confidante Elisabeth von Harzogenberg, referring to the sour cherries that grew at Muerzzuschlag, hoping that his new symphony would not possess something of the same quality.
The symphony received its first performance in October 1885 at Meiningen, where Hans von Buelow directed the famous court orchestra. It was to be the principal work in a tour by the orchestra, with Brahms, who described himself as an extra conductor, directing it himself. Brahms, with his usual lack of discretion, conducted a later performance of the symphony in Frankfurt, before a planned appearance by Hans von Buelow and the Moiningen Orchestra, an action that resulted in a distinct coolness between the two men, to be followed, as so often in the composer's relationships, by a later reconciliation.
Hans von Buelow referred himself to the rock-like strength of the work, a quality apparent in the opening bars, in which the first descending interval in the violin provides the seed from which much of the rest of this tightly integrated and complex structure is to grow. The second movement was paradoxically compared by Richard Strauss, who was present at the first performance, to "a funeral procession moving in silence across moonlit heights", something, perhaps, from the evocatively romantic paintings of Caspar David Friedrich. There is, of course, something processional in the steady beat of the plucked strings and the wind scoring, after the opening horn theme. The suggestion is emphasised by the apparent use of the Phrygian mode in the opening, moving to the more genial E Major as the movement progresses, with a strongly felt theme introduced by the cellos.
The Allegro giocoso is massively playful, scored for an additional drum, piccolo and double bassoon, as well as the forces employed for the earlier movements. The subsequent Finale adds three trombones, which lend majesty to the eight-bar theme, the basis of thirty following variations. Brahms here writes a passacaglia, accepting the restrictions of a baroque variation form and offering, within this, a magnificence and variety which make this last movement the culmination of the whole work, and of Brahms's achievement as a symhonist.
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BRAHMS: Symphony No. 4 / Tragic Overture