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Symphony No. 4 (Brahms)

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Title: Symphony No. 4 (Brahms)  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
Language: English
Subject: Johannes Brahms, Meiningen Court Orchestra, Victor de Sabata discography, 1885 in music, Carlos Kleiber
Collection: 1885 Compositions, Compositions in E Minor, Symphonies by Johannes Brahms
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

Symphony No. 4 (Brahms)

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The Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98 by Johannes Brahms is the last of his symphonies. Brahms began working on the piece in Mürzzuschlag, then in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in 1884, just a year after completing his Symphony No. 3. It was premiered on October 25, 1885 in Meiningen, Germany.


  • Instrumentation 1
  • Movements 2
  • Analysis 3
    • First movement: Allegro non troppo 3.1
    • Second movement: Andante moderato 3.2
    • Third movement: Allegro giocoso 3.3
    • Fourth movement: Allegro energico e passionato 3.4
  • Reception 4
  • Notes 5
  • References 6
  • External links 7


The symphony is scored for two flutes (one doubling on piccolo), two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, triangle (third movement only), and strings.


The symphony is divided into four movements with the following tempo markings:

  1. Allegro non troppo (E minor)
  2. Andante moderato (E major)
  3. Allegro giocoso (C major)
  4. Allegro energico e passionato (E minor)

Among the four symphonies by Brahms this is the only one ending in a minor key. A typical performance lasts about 40 minutes.


First movement: Allegro non troppo

This movement is in sonata form, although it features some unique approaches to development. For instance, there is no repeat of the exposition; according to Malcolm MacDonlad the music is so "powerfully organic and continuously unfolding" that such a repeat would hinder forward progress.[1]

The opening theme is initially serene in character, although its composition in a chain of descending thirds adds a fateful air. Its left-vs.-right fragmented melodic form (duh-DUM, da-DEE, duh-DUM, da-DEE) also introduces a feeling of conflict which Brahms uses as a fundamental motivation throughout the movement.

Section Key Description
Exposition: Bar 1 Primary theme E minor A sense of rhythmic instability starting on the pick-up note. This relatively fragmented melody forms a descending sequence in the upper instruments in dialogue with the lower instruments. The notes (taken out of register) outline a descending major 3rd – B, G, E, C, A, F sharp, etc. – a unifying motif for this work.
Bar 19 Transition modulation to second theme Goes from E minor to the dominant B minor Starts by fragmenting the primary theme
Bar 53 Transition motif Transition motif: a rhythmic pattern in the wood winds
Bar 57 Secondary Theme period 1 B minor Initially in the cellos, then passed up into the violins with intermittent play with transition motif.
Bar 95 Secondary Theme period 2 B major – parallel major of B minor In the woodwinds.
Bar 107 Transition motif B major Using transition motif pp to ff.
Bar 137 transition modulation to development Lead from B major into E minor Using primary theme material
Bar 145 Development Various It starts with a statement of the primary theme before leading away into a development
Bar 246 Recapitulation E minor Slow version of primary theme in the upper instruments (initially in C major harmony) with intermittent use of transition motif followed by lengthy recapitulation of secondary theme block in the dominant key.
Bar 394 Coda E minor Final climactic statement of the primary theme in ff.

Second movement: Andante moderato

Featuring a theme in the phrygian mode, heard at the beginning unaccompanied and at the end with a lush orchestral accompaniment, this movement has a modified sonata form with no development section.

Section Key Description
Exposition: Bar 1 Introduction c major / phrygian Introduction to the principal theme by horns
Bar 5 Principal theme E major Several statements of the principal theme
Bar 36 Transition theme B minor Dominated by the wind sections
Bar 41 Secondary Theme b minor Initially in the cellos, then passed up into the violins
Bar 50 Secondary Theme cadence and transition theme B major Using transition motif pp to ff.
Bar 64 Recapitulation Various keys Recapitulation quite similar in structure to the exposition
Bar 106 Coda E major / phrygian Free play of themes with frequent use of arpeggios

Third movement: Allegro giocoso

This movement is the only true scherzo found in Brahms' symphonies. It is in sonata form with foreshortened recapitulation and with the secondary theme nearly absent in the development and coda.

Section Key Description
Bar 1 Primary theme C major and E-flat major Primary theme consisting of three different periods (in the order of: Period 1, Period 2, Period 3, Period 1)
Bar 46 Transition to secondary theme Transition to G major Based on the first period of the primary theme
Bar 52 Secondary Theme G major Secondary theme followed by elements of a transition to the development
Bar 89 Development Various keys Based on the primary theme block with several fugue like passages and a slow "trio" like section based on the 2nd period of the 1st theme.
Bar 181 Transition to recapitulation Modulation from D-flat major to C major
Bar 199 Recapitulation C and G key areas Re-statement of primary theme starting with the second period (Period 2, Period 3, Period 1) followed by restatement the secondary theme and then transition theme leading to coda
Bar 282 Coda C and G key areas Final statement of the period 1 and 2 of primary theme block (in the order Period 1, Period 2, Period 1)

Fourth movement: Allegro energico e passionato

This last movement is notable as a rare example of a symphonic passacaglia, which is similar to a chaconne with the slight difference that the subject can appear in more voices than the bass. For the repeating theme, Brahms adapted the chaconne theme in the closing movement of Johann Sebastian Bach's cantata, Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich, BWV 150.

An analysis of this last movement by Walter Frisch provides yet further interpretation to Brahms' structure of this work, by giving sections sonata form dimensions.

The symphony is rich in allusions, most notably to various Beethoven compositions. The symphony may well have been inspired by the play Antony and Cleopatra, which Brahms had been researching at the time.[2]

Arnold Schoenberg, in his essay Brahms the Progressive (Brahms is often characterized as being a conservative composer), pointed out several thematic relationships in the score, as does Malcolm MacDonald in his biography of the composer. The first half of the chaconne theme is anticipated in the bass during the coda at an important point of the preceding movement; and the first movement's descending thirds, transposed by a fifth, appear in counterpoint during one of the final variations of the chaconne.

Section Key Description
Bar 1 "Theme" E minor Statement of "theme" and main chordal structure
Bar 9 Variations 1–11 Mostly in E minor/C major key areas as well as in other keys Variations match the bar count and chordal structure (though in some variations transposed to different key). 3/4 time
Bar 97 Variations 12–15 E key area and A key area Variations match the bar count (though with bars lasting twice as long) and chordal structure ((though transposed to different key areas)). 3/2 time
Bar 129 Variations 16–23 E key area and A key area Variations match the bar count and chordal structure (though transposed to different key areas). 3/4 time
Bar 193 Variations 24–26 Mostly in E key area and C key area Structurally variation 24 is similar to variation 1, variation 25 is similar to variation 2 and variation 26 is similar to variation 3. 3/4 time
Bar 217 Variations 27–30 Mostly in E key area and C key area Variations match the bar count and chordal structure (though transposed to different key areas). 3/4 time
Bar 249 Transition to coda In E key area and C key area Extension of the last variation (variation 30).
Bar 253 Coda Many different key areas Playing on material from the variations with intermittent quasi-variations
Bar 297 Final statement of theme E minor Compressed statement of theme and final cadence


The work was given its premiere in Meiningen on October 25, 1885 with Brahms himself conducting. The piece had earlier been given to a small private audience in a version for two pianos, played by Brahms and Ignaz Brüll. Brahms' friend and biographer Max Kalbeck, reported that the critic Eduard Hanslick, acting as one of the page-turners, exclaimed on hearing the first movement at this performance: "For this whole movement I had the feeling that I was being given a beating by two incredibly intelligent people."[3] Hanslick later spoke more approvingly of it, however.

Progressive rock group Yes' keyboardist Rick Wakeman used part of the symphony on the instrumental "Cans and Brahms" from the 1971 album Fragile.


  1. ^ MacDonald, Malcolm (1990). Brahms (1st American ed.). New York: Schirmer Books. p. 314.  
  2. ^ "Brahms, Johannes ." Britannica Encyclopedia, from Encyclopædia Britannica Deluxe Edition 2004 CD-ROM. Copyright © 1994–2003 Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. May 30, 2003
  3. ^ Frisch, Walter (2003). Brahms: the Four Symphonies. Yale music masterworks. Yale University Press. p. 116.  


External links

  • Symphony No. 4: Scores at the International Music Score Library Project
  • Downloadable score of the piece in .pdf format
  • Allusive Irony in Brahms's Fourth Symphony. (Analysis of Allusions in the Symphony) by Kenneth Hull
  • Detailed Listening Guide (Text!) using the recording by Claudio Abbado
  • , 17 March 2000.The GuardianAndrew Clements, "Brahms: Symphony No. 4" (from "Building a Classical Library" series).
  • Online Audio-Video of the first two minutes of the final movement (Berlin Philharmonics under Sir Simon Rattle)
  • Online audio-video of Vera Hsu and Chiming Shui performing the first movement as scored by Brahms for two pianos.
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