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The Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98 by Johannes Brahms is the last of his symphonies and is arguably his magnum opus, along with Ein deutsches Requiem. Brahms began working on the piece in 1884, just a year after completing his Symphony No. 3, and completed it in 1885.

Instrumentation

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

Movements

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

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


A typical performance lasts about 40 minutes.

Analysis

The first movement is Brahms at his most dramatic and passionate, while the second movement has an air of a requiem. The joyful third movement, which was written last, resounds with triangle. The last movement is notable as a rare example of a symphonic chaconne, which is similar to a passacaglia. For the repeating theme, Brahms adapted the passacaglia theme in the closing movement of Johann Sebastian Bach's cantata, Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich, BWV 150. The symphony is rich in allusions, most notably to various Beethoven compositions. The symphony may well have been inspired by the ancient Greek tragedies of Sophocles that Brahms had been reading at the time.

Arnold Schoenberg, in his essay Brahms the Progressive, 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.

Reception

The work was given its premiere in Meiningenmarker on October 25 1885 with Brahms himself conducting. It was well received and has remained popular ever since. The piece had earlier been given to a small private audience in a version for two pianos (one of them played by Brahms). Brahms' friend and biographer Max Kalbeck, reported that the critic Eduard Hanslick, on hearing the first movement in this performance, exclaimed, "For this whole movement I had the feeling that I was being given a beating by two incredibly intelligent people." Hanslick later spoke more approvingly of it, however.

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