Academic Festival Overture, Op. 80
One of the composer's wittiest and most colorfully scored pieces, the Academic Festival Overture is one of two self-contained concert overtures Brahms wrote in 1880. "One weeps, the other laughs," he said upon completing them. The weeper, the Tragic Overture, is in Brahms's most severe style. The Academic Festival Overture was supposed to be that way as well, but Brahms-a notorious jokester-turned the tables on his solemn commissioners.
He wrote the overture on the occasion of garnering an honorary doctorate from the University of Breslau, receiving a citation describing him as the "foremost exponent of musical art in the severe style." What the university got instead of severity was a string of student drinking songs, colored with uncharacteristically juicy orchestration, including contrabassoon, piccolo, tuba, bass drum, cymbals, and triangle. Though these songs are laid out with typically Brahmsian deftness and are interspersed with his own material, they are also allowed to sing with full beer-hall lustiness.
The overture opens deceptively in a minor key, melts into a sumptuous trumpet trio with burnished strings ("We Have Built a Stately House,") then bursts into a medley of tunes, including "The Father of Our Country," "The Fox-Ride," and "Let Us Be Merry," the opening words of which call on us to "rejoice while we are young." In the exuberant coda, the students at the premiere did precisely that, joining Brahms on the podium with what Julian Haylock calls "words of a somewhat irreverent nature."
© 2013 The Carnegie Hall Corporation
Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 77
An Unlikely Showpiece
Of all the great violin concertos, the single one by Brahms would seem the least likely to have become a staple for violin virtuosos and a trope in popular culture (the latest being the film There Will Be Blood, in which the concerto's gypsy finale provides fiery counterpoint). Written in 1878 for violinist Joseph Joachim, it eschews grandstanding solo effects, making the violin an integral part of Brahms's typically intricate architecture.
Though many commentators compare this violin concerto with Beethoven's (it does have the same key and a similarly witty finale), Brahms originally meant for the concerto to be even larger and more symphonic, with four movements instead of the usual three. Brahms was unhappy about having to abandon the scherzo, but he couldn't make it work here. (Some believe the scherzo later turned up in pianistic form for the Second Piano Concerto.) He also had trouble with the Adagio, but it turned out to be one of his most concise and exquisite slow movements.
Joachim, a longtime friend of Brahms, made numerous suggestions, but Brahms ignored most of them. The solo part is notoriously treacherous, but doesn't sound it—a paradox that led more than one commentator to complain that the concerto was written not for but against the violin.
A Difficult Premiere
The Leipzig premiere on New Year's Day 1879, with Brahms conducting, garnered only tepid applause, and the work's future seemed uncertain. Famous soloist Pablo de Sarasate refused to play it, famously complaining that he felt upstaged by the languid solo oboe in the slow movement: "Why should I stand in front of the orchestra while the oboe has the only melody in the entire piece?" A later January performance in Vienna was far more successful, with the audience cheering Joachim after his virtuosic candenza in the first movement, even though the coda had not commenced.
A Closer Listen
The concerto is a study in contrast. Brahms was known as an anti-Wagnerian, but as Andrew Porter pointed out, the violin's first entrance is a Wagnerian dawn: Out of a D-minor timpani pedal it gradually climbs, circles, falters, and finally soars toward a radiant D major. The profusion of ideas in the massive first movement—with two expositions, one for orchestra and the other for the soloist—recalls the Second Symphony from the previous year, which was also written in the town of Pörtschach am Wörthersee, described by Brahms as "a place with so many melodies flying around, one doesn't know how to catch them." Near the end, Brahms stops everything and instructs the violinist to improvise a cadenza—one of the last concertos where this tradition is reflected. (This evening, Ms. Batiashvili performs the cadenza by Ferruccio Busoni rather than the more common one by Joachim.) The final hushed singing of the main theme just before the coda is one of Brahms's most ravishing moments.
The slow movement, with its memorable oboe solo, focuses mainly on one theme, while the racy finale inhabits the same Hungarian gypsy terrain as the finales of the Piano Quartet No. 1, String Quartet No. 2, and Double Concerto. Brahms normally didn't like to repeat himself, but in this case he couldn't resist.
© 2013 The Carnegie Hall Corporation
Symphony No. 4 in E Minor, Op. 98
Brahmsians vs. Wagnerians
"A choral work without text" is how Brahms described his Fourth Symphony. The remark is characteristic of Brahms's self-deprecation (he also described the Fourth to Hans von Bülow as "a couple of entr'actes"), but it does get at the hymn-like solemnity of this final, most formally perfect Brahms symphony.
By the time the Fourth Symphony premiered in 1885, with Brahms himself conducting von Bülow's Meiningen orchestra, the bitter feud between "radical" Wagnerians and "traditional" Brahmsians had become an institution in musical life, and one with predictable scenarios and rituals. (The premiere of the Third two years earlier, enlivened by cacophonous catcalls and cheers, had occasioned the scheduling of at least one duel.) The Fourth inspired even more hyperbole than usual, with the anti-Brahmsians denouncing even the symphony's home key of E minor as "pale" and "wan." "Just like the good Lord," declared Hugo Wolf when the Fourth was presented in Vienna, "Herr Brahms is a master at making something from nothing." George Bernard Shaw took up the war cry in England, comparing the British public's "in-churchiest expression" during a performance of the Fourth to "the yokel in As You Like It quailing before the big words of the fool."
The Brahmsians, just as predictably, immediately declared the Fourth to be a Godlike masterpiece, the ultimate fulfillment of Beethoven's symphonic legacy. Eduard Hanslick, Brahms's influential champion, wrote that the Fourth represented the most consummate "craftsmanship" of the age (a statement actually not far off the mark) and compared the passacaglia finale to "a dark well; the longer we look into it, the more brightly the stars shine back."
Too Subtle for Easy Acceptance
Hanslick and his camp also declared the initial performances of the Fourth to be "a series of triumphs," but the truth seems to be that the work was relatively slow to catch on. It may well be that the very qualities its champions admired—its formal mastery and "autumnal" restraint—were not necessarily endearing to a late–19th-century audience. Hanslick himself admitted that the beauties of the Fourth are not "apparent at first glance; its charms are not democratic."
In fact, the great irony of this symphony is that one of its most passionate admirers turned out to be Arnold Schoenberg-hardly a musical traditionalist-because of its architectural complexity. It was Schoenberg who first pointed out that the pattern of falling thirds that opens the piece not only permeates and generates much of the first movement, but is even expanded in the penultimate variation of the finale—one of countless structural intricacies in the work. Since Brahms is now one of the most beloved of all composers, it is easy to forget that in his time he was often regarded as too cerebral for large audiences.
About the Music
As Lawrence Gilman has pointed out, too much has been made of the "tragic" and "pessimistic" quality of this symphony. The Fourth is actually far more reticent about its Romantic melancholy than any number of other works of the period, including earlier minor-key pieces by Brahms himself. Especially hard to comprehend are the "cries of pain" once heard by commentators in the plushly contoured first movement, with its rich profusion of interlocking melodies. As for the Andante moderato—arguably the most beautiful slow movement in Brahms's symphonies—its stately, increasingly soulful variations are hardly depressing, any more than the sprightly energy of the scherzo third movement (Brahms's first use of this Beethovenian form in a symphony).
Only in the passacaglia finale, the most written-about movement of all four symphonies, does Brahms sound notes of authentic tragedy. For many years, a controversy stirred over whether the form of this movement is a chaconne instead of a "true" passacaglia, but as Edward Downes pointed out, the argument is silly "since musical scholars and composers differ with each other and among themselves as to which name belongs to which form." Whatever one chooses to label it, this monumental yet concise structure consists of 32 variations on a majestic progression of forte chords sounded at the beginning by wind and brass. With its air of solemnity and final things, it is a moving conclusion to Brahms's career as a symphonist.
© 2013 The Carnegie Hall Corporation