A serene morning stroll with Johannes Brahms

Vienna. © Charles Thibo

An early morning in Vienna – what a gift! The city was already on the move, but the serenity of a peaceful night still lingered over little streets north and east of the Stephansdom. I had woken up early and could spare an hour between breakfast and my appointment at the United Nations to stroll around, to spend a moment or two inside the dome, accompanied by my good friend Johannes Brahms. Over my iPhone I listened to the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig under Riccardo Chailly performing Brahm’s Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98. The opening reminded my of a short prayer, later the first movement features waltz-like elements – Good morning, Vienna!

Brahms wrote this piece in 1885 and as so often he was unhappy with it. “I fear it [the symphony] tastes like the climate here – the cherries, they not get any sweetness. You wouldn’t eat them”, he wrote to Hans von Bülow, a pianist and composer. In September he finished an arrangement for two pianos and presented it to a selected circle of friends. No enthusiasm came up, one of his friends counselled him to revise it. But interestingly Brahms would hear none of it. The piano arrangement would not truly express what the symphony in its orchestrated version would express. Once the rehearsals had started, Brahms was reassured, while von Bülow was ecstatic: “Gigantic, very special, very new, strong individuality. Breathes unparalleled energy from A to Z.”

“Your wonderful creation”

Brahms’ friend, the violinist Joseph Joachim reported to the composer after the final rehearsal: “We have now played your wonderful creation and I have high hopes that we will be able to perform it tonight with much assurance and passion. It has deeply penetrated my soul and the soul of the orchestra.”

Brahms led the world premiere on October 25, 1885 in Meinigen. The premiere in Vienna took place in January 1886, and the respected if not feared music critic Eduard Hanslick wrote: “Nobody will recognize [the symphony’s] rich spirituality at the first glance, it will not reveal its pure beauty; its charms are not of a democratic nature. Manly power, uncompromising consequence, an earnestness bordering austerity […]” This work among others stood in Hanslick’s eyes for Brahms’ individual form and individual musical language.

The first bars of the first movement are a prime example for the pure beauty that Hanslick mentioned, a  lyric, undulating melody that got me hooked immediately to this symphony. The second movement – a slow fanfare-like theme, andante moderato – starts with the brass, echoed by the woods and later enhanced by a delicate string pizzicato*. Although the instrumentation is lean, an example for the austerity Hanslick spoke about, I find its solemn character deeply moving. The next movement starts vigorously, massively, the whole orchestra thunders through the concert hall with a catching theme, contrasted by light, floating string figures, echoed later by the winds. The finale breathes the same spirit: loaded with energy on the one hand, delicate lyricism on the other hand.

The more I listen to this symphony the better I like. A truly uplifting piece of music of outstanding beauty.

© Charles Thibo

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