Note: This is the fourth in a monthly series reviewing my list of the greatest symphonies in western classical music.
Johannes Brahms’ brilliant life as a composer yielded only four symphonies among a host of other great orchestral and chamber works. All of his symphonies are noteworthy but, for me, the Brahms Symphony No. 4 ranks as his personal best and the greatest of a competitive field of Great Fourths.
The Brahms Fourth was one of the first pieces of classical music I bought on vinyl back when I started my classical music collection around 1980. When I hear it my mind drifts back to earlier times that somehow resonate in memory, vague recollections of listening satisfaction in various life situations.
The first movement is my favorite. It is an impassioned effort, beautifully orchestrated. The strings slightly dominate, but there are several moments when the horns and, particularly, the winds are prominent. The overall experience is a sense of easy confidence. It is optimistic without being too sweet. (Though Wagner disliked Brahms for his supposed light-weight sweetness and thinly layered style.) The first movement is very balanced and dramatic.
The next movement is also strong, though much more somber and relaxed. Unlike his other symphonies, which took longer periods to complete, Brahms finished his Great Fourth after about a year of composition. It premiered in 1885 and was immediately popular. It has never lost its favor.
The third movement features a theme from a cantata by Johann Sebastian Bach. It is a memorable part of the symphony. The final movement holds up well with the rest of the work, giving it a strong, emotionally complex finish. The work is very heavily influenced by Beethoven. At no point more so than about two-thirds of the way through the finale and from there pretty much to the finish. In some respects the Brahms symphonies are what Beethoven himself might have done with a larger orchestra and a more sophisticated audience.
Anton Bruckner wrote a Great Fourth that compares very favorably with the Brahms. His “Romantic” Symphony is a rich, sophisticated, emotionally satisfying large piece lasting some 70 minutes. The symphony begins lightly, in growing strength, rising triumphantly about two minutes in with an inspiring crescendo. Buckner’s orchestration is much more layered than Brahms, but none of his themes are quite as catchy. Still, what an incredible work.
This symphony was part of a noteworthy moment of history. The Berlin Philharmonic performed it April 13, 1945 under the direction of the great conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler while the overwhelming Soviet army was poised only 30 miles away. It was the final performance under Nazi influence and was broadcast over the nation. Hitler would be dead in about two weeks. The concert hall was packed despite the danger of Russian air strikes around Berlin. Afterwards, the audience was offered complimentary cyanide tablets as patrons filed out of the performance.
The second movement is both complex and stately, a generally slow pace. The third movement is a theme based on the call of a hunter’s horn. My favorite movement is the finale. This movement is so vast, lasting over 22 minutes, that it would require a post by itself to describe. Suffice it to say that it is a richly orchestrated, multi-themed, triumphant progression to a magnificent yet surprisingly subtle climax. Very satisfying. Though composed in 1874, the Bruckner Fourth was constantly revised until 1888.
The Great Fourth from Tchaikovsky is an entertaining wonder. Like my experience with most of Tchaikovsky’s work, it has a certain seasonal quality about it that is difficult to describe. Tchaikovsky is winter to me. I feel airy in this work, light but serious, rational yet essentially joyful and free. It begins with a bold horn fanfare but that quickly gives way to what is more typical in this symphony, a lyrical theme handled delicately, altered by moments of boldness with the orchestra. The second movement is probably my favorite of all movements of all other Great Fourths mentioned in this post. It is so great that it outshines the rest of the symphony. Afterwards, the symphony is finished off by a brief third and quick fourth movement which really can’t match the brilliance of the first two movements. To that extent the symphony is a bit unbalanced but the strength of its first two movements more than compensates.
The symphony was met with great criticism in its time. It was labeled “semi-barbaric” when it premièred in New York City. Today it is considered part of the standard repertoire. Tchaikovsky was at his best when he composed symphonic (more so than chamber) works including his concertos and serenades. With his Fourth he shows us a varied tapestry of at times forceful, at times gentle, at times intense musical themes that, on the whole, captures your attention and immerses you in itself.
Felix Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony is a superb example of a classic, romantic symphony. In this regard it makes a great companion with Schumann’s Third. Both are measured and romantically constructed classics. Mendelssohn’s Fourth is comparatively brief, technically challenging with a great deal of catchy themes to hook the listener. There is no better example of this that with the symphony’s opening movement which is very pleasant to enjoy. This happy movement is part-march, part-celebration. This is followed by a reverent movement based upon a religious ceremony Mendelssohn had witnessed in Italy (which is part of the reason for the title of this Great Fourth). The symphony is very balanced between sections of the orchestra. The third movement richly features all orchestral sections. The brisk fourth movement slowly builds to a mild urgency, almost racing at a gallop near the conclusion. This is another symphony which, like the Brahms, caught my ear early on in my musical appreciation and of which I have repeatedly enjoyed listening to for most of my life.
The Mahler Fourth makes the list. It is his most accessible work and where everyone unfamiliar with Mahler should began their appreciation of him as a symphonic genius. It is also, perhaps, my least favorite Mahler symphony precisely because when I listen to Mahler I expect an emotional spectrum and a multiplicity of overlapping themes that is not sentimental. This symphony is his most sentimental work. This Fourth is actually an appendage of sorts to Mahler’s massive Great Third. The final movement of Mahler’s Fourth was a work for soprano that ended up being discarded from the Third. Mahler spent the summers between 1899 and 1901 composing the first three movements that setup the fourth.
The first movement makes me think of Christmas time for various reasons. The second movement can serve as nice background music to some occasion fitting its soft expression. The third movement, weighing in at almost 22 minutes, is pleasant to listen and is at times very sweet. It is the highlight of the work and worth listening to by itself. The soprano movement is marked Sehr behaglich (Very comfortably) and is a song narrating a child’s impressions of heaven, the lyrics as naïve and innocent as the rest of the work. If you consider how Mahler labels the other three movements you get a sense of how this symphony is meant to be experienced. The first movement being Bedächtig, nicht eilen (Moderately, not rushed), the second In gemächlicher Bewegung, ohne Hast (Leisurely moving, without haste), and the third is Ruhevoll, poco adagio (Peacefully, somewhat slowly). In ending with a song, the symphony simply fades in the finale and concludes quietly.