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Brahms – Symphony No. 4

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Johannes Brahms

Let’s go back in time for this week’s Listen To This!. We are in 1884, in a small Austrian town called Mürzzuschlag. In fact we’re more in 1885 than 1884 because today we’re speaking of the 4th movement of the 4th symphony of the most bearded composer of all times: Johannes Brahms. Yes, Brahms spent his 1884 and 1885 summers writing the marvelous E minor symphony, his last one. What so special about it? Well, keep reading.

You know I’m kind of obsessed with structures and organization when it comes to music pieces, I talked about it there. I also love allusions to other works, or understanding where the motivic or melodic material comes from. Well, this movement was the first of a romantic symphony I ever analyzed. A passacaglia with more than 30 variations which theme is an adaptation of the closing chaconne of Bach’s cantata Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich with allusions to other composers’ works (Beethoven!) as well as quotes of the first movement of the same symphony? Imagine how excited I could be! If I don’t really listen to this symphony very often, the passacaglia is one of my most common earworms…

The work was given its premiere in Meiningen on October 25, 1885 with Brahms himself conducting and here is an old live version (1948!!!) of the Berlin Philharmonic under the baton of Furtwängler. (You can as well appreciate how the orchestra sound and performance quality have evolved).