Thursday, December 7, 2017

Brahms and Absolute Music

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!

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