Brahms came late to symphony writing, as he was forty two when his first symphony was written and performed in 1876. He wrote three more by 1885 and although he lived another thirteen years, he wrote no more symphonies.
His fourth symphony is the culmination of all he learned while writing the first three, and his knowledge and appreciation of the older forms of music. His instills the symphony with a range of powerful emotions that prove that no matter his conservative leanings, Brahms was a product of the Romantic era as much as any other composer.
The 4th symphony has four movements:I.Allegro non troppo - The strings begin with a restless two-note motive that appears throughout the movement. The restless nature of the music continues until the drama and intensity grow into a thundering final cadence and the movement comes to a tragic close.
II.Andante moderato - A melancholy melody gently plays through the remains of the previous tragedy. It is not so much a restful respite, but a gentle reminder that things are what they are, and we must bear them with grace and dignity.
III.Allegro giocoso - A scherzo in all but name, Brahms rough-house humor comes through in this movement, notable for the of a triangle which was very unusual for a classical orchestrator like Brahms. The scherzo offers an extended break from seriousness, and considering what follows was much needed for the sake of contrast.
IV.Allegro energico e passionato - The tragedy of the first movement is extended in the finale. Brahms chose to cast the music in the form of a passacaglia, one of the Baroque forms that he had studied. The thirty two variations contained within the movement are based on a base line from a Bach cantata, Number 150 Nach Dir, Herr, verlanget mich, (I Long To Be Near You, Lord). . Brahms states the harmonized bass line in woodwinds and brass to begin the movement:
The variations go through many guises, transformations and workings, but the bass line is always present in one form or another. Sometimes the bass line is felt more than heard, but it is there, like a truth of life that can be felt and heard but not explained. Unlike the similar chaconne, a passacaglia can have the bass line move in any voice, not just the bass, and Brahms does just that. It is music that moves to the end without resolving of life. All we know is that we've been on a journey, and that just may be the important thing.