If you’ve heard the other Brahms symphonies (you might recall our performance of Symphony No. 1 last September) and thought “wow, this is powerful stuff,” you’ve just a had a taste of what awaits you for the Fourth.
The last of Brahms’s four symphonies, Symphony No. 4 — featured on this weekend’s Masterworks 1: Out of the Shadows performance — is the only one to be written in a minor key (think more drama and more complexity). The work was premiered under the baton of Brahms himself in October 1885. Composed three decades after his first symphony, this work is a masterpiece created by a composer who had already established himself as a master of the craft and had little more to prove. While the First was quite Beethoven-esque (never a bad thing!) the Fourth is all Brahms: it’s powerful, complicated, and deeply moving, the perfect combination for an emotional musical experience. Eduard Hanslick, a famously sensational music critic at the time, remarked that “For this whole [first] movement I had the feeling that I was being given a beating by two incredibly intelligent people…[for] the musician, there is not another piece so productive as a subject for study. It is like a dark well; the longer we look into it, the more brightly the stars shine back.” Hans van Bülow, one of the most prominent conductors of the day (if you could ask him which works he premiered, he could easily name drop iconic masterpieces like Wagner’s Tristan un Isolde opera and Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No 1) had his own remarks about the Fourth: “Difficult, very difficult. No. 4 gigantic, altogether a law unto itself, quite new, steely individuality. Exudes unparalleled energy from first note to last.”
While the First took Brahms nearly fourteen years two write, the Fourth was began in 1884 in the small Austrian mountain town of Mürzzuschlag and was completed the following year. Known now for its ski resorts — one of which is among the oldest in Austria — Brahms spent two summers here away from his busy city life in Vienna during which he composed his final symphony. Much like his idol, Beethoven, who spent many summers in the Austrian countryside, Brahms too was inspired by nature and often implemented wildlife sounds and horn calls in his works; the Fourth is certainly no exception. Brahms once wrote to a colleague that his symphony, still a work in progress at the time, “tastes of the climate here [in the Styrian Alps]; the cherries are hardly sweet here — you wouldn’t eat them!”
Prepare to be transported from one mountain town to another for a deep, not-so-sweet masterpiece. Just like Brahms, you might say we saved the best for last, but rest of the Masterworks 1: Out of the Shadows program features a set of equally powerful companions. Heavily influenced by the effects and trauma of World War I, Elgar’s Cello Concerto is hauntingly beautiful and considered to be among the greatest works written for the cello (already hauntingly beautiful on its own). Kicking off the program is Beethoven’s Leonore Overture from Fidelio, a work known for its own powerful and emotionally charged personality (much like the opera’s heroine herself), a perfect companion for the powerful Brahms Symphony No. 4; Brahms would certainly be pleased to know that his works are still performed alongside his idol and his inspiration.