Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Music for Music's Sake: Brahms' Fourth Symphony

Last time we looked at the mid-19th century debate over absolute and programmatic music. Johannes Brahms advocated absolute music or, music for music’s sake. Known for introducing new elements to traditional forms, Brahms sought to put his own mark on the successes of his predecessors. Though it took him over 40 years to attempt to complete a symphony in fear of remaining in the shadow of Beethoven, he ended up completing four outstanding symphonies that are still known and loved today.

Today, let’s use the finale of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony as our absolute music listening example. This movement is a chaconne, a Baroque form characterized by a slow, stately feel and featuring variations on a harmonic pattern or a constantly repeated bass line. The set of variations in this movement draws from Bach’s cantata Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich, BWV 150. This use of a theme and variations movement as the finale of a symphony was not common but we do see it in Beethoven’s Third Symphony, which may have also been a model for Brahms.

Listen here to the finale of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony. Do you feel that if Brahms had provided a program explaining his intent and the music’s meaning it would help you to more fully enjoy this work? Or do you prefer to come up with your own images, moods, and meaning when listening to this beautiful music? Let me know your opinion!




  1. The later. Isn't that a reason that it has a number and not a name? It encourages the audience to imagine, that is to think.

    1. Yes, that is a very good point. Often times, music given a title rather than a number helps to guide the audience in the composer's intended direction, usually depicting a specific image or literary reference. As always, there are some exceptions to this rule, one being Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4. Though simply given a number, the composer admitted that he did have a program in mind to accompany the piece.

  2. I always think it's interesting to learn about what a composer brought to a composition, and yet, even with this knowledge in mind, it is inescapable that we will all have our own associations with various pieces.

  3. Brahms always rewards deep study! I never knew about the chaconne or its origins. I've always dearly loved anything Brahms wrote, especially orchestrally. Do I love it more now that I know more about it? Of Course! Was it necessary for me to know this to enjoy it? Absolutely Not! It's like hearing a beautiful bird song coming from a tree in my backyard. I could just sit and enjoy it, but the fact that it interests me causes me to want to know more about it. So I investigate and find out it's a Robin. Now I can share with my wife that I heard a beautiful Robin song, not just a "pretty bird". I call it "deepening my involvement" in the music. Thanks for that Jessica!