Simon Rattle’s performance of all the symphonies by Brahms and Schumann culminates with this concert. Schumann’s Fourth Symphony, heard here in an early version from 1841, merits particular attention. This version is played relatively rarely, but for Simon Rattle it is far superior to the established late version because of its enhanced “lightness, grace and beauty”.
Symphony No. 4 in D minor (First Version from 1841)
Symphony No. 4 in E minor
Berliner Philharmoniker Foundation in co-operation with Berliner Festspiele/Musikfest Berlin
Already in the second half of the 1850s, Johannes Brahms collaborated on publishing Robert Schumann’s posthumous works. He championed the original versions of both the Andante with Variations op. 46 and the D minor Symphony – Schumann had fundamentally revised the symphony, originally composed and premiered in 1841, ten years subsequently and had it printed as “No. 4”. Brahms preferred the first version, primarily because of its more transparent sound, and brought about – much to the displeasure of Schumann’s widow Clara – a separate edition of that composition. It differs from the later version in its instrumentation, quicker tempi and the shorter introduction to the finale. Wrapping up the philharmonic Schumann / Brahms cycle, Sir Simon Rattle too decided in favour of the rarely heard first version of the D minor Symphony. He explains his vote for the early version of the work saying that Schumann in 1851 did indeed “use in principle exactly the same material, the same notes,” but transformed “a symphony full of lightness, grace and beauty into a symphony of gloom, delusion and compulsion.”
On the second half of the programme is Brahms’s Fourth Symphony, composed in 1884–85, about which even before the premiere Hans von Bülow enthusiastically reported to his Berlin concert agent Hermann Wolff: “No. 4 mammoth, quite idiosyncratic, very new, iron individuality. Breathes an unparalleled energy from a to z.” Joseph Joachim noted on the occasion of the first Berlin performance on 1 February 1886: “The downright gripping pull of the whole thing, the denseness of the concoction, the wonderfully convoluted growth of the motives, even more than the abundance and beauty of individual passages have really had a profound effect on me so that I almost believe that the E minor is my favourite among the four symphonies.”
“The memory of Schumann is sacred to me. That noble, pure artist will always serve as my model,” Johannes Brahms acknowledged in a letter of 1873. The mature Brahms, on the other hand, was not overly pleased about the belief which was prevalent during the later 19th century that, as a composer, he was Schumann’s successor, nor did he wish to be described as the pupil of his discoverer, advocate and fatherly friend, particularly since the two men became closer at a time when Schumann’s health began to deteriorate rapidly. There could hardly have been much opportunity for an in-depth exchange on compositional questions. Schumann’s influence was strong, but his impact on Brahms’s work was more subliminal.
The inner attitude of the generation-younger composer towards Schumann, who died in 1856 at the age of only 46, seems to have been ambivalent throughout Brahms’s lifetime anyway, although professional and extremely personal aspects overlapped in a special way. During the years of Schumann’s illness the emotionally inexperienced Brahms developed a strong affection for his wife Clara, the unparalleled pianist and mother of eight children, resulting in feelings of guilt and repressed desires. The relationship between Brahms and Schumann was no less complicated in terms of artistic practice.
Although Schumann made the 20-year-old Brahms famous overnight in the music world with his essay “Neue Bahnen” (New Paths), which was published in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik in 1853, hailing him with messianic exuberance as the long-awaited “chosen one” and the artist who was “destined to give ideal expression to the times”, he also saddled Brahms with an obligation that would weigh heavily on him for many years to come. Brahms had barely arrived on the scene when he found himself exploited for partisan purposes, as it were, and thrust into a prominent position in the controversy over the legitimate successor to Beethoven. He may also have felt that Schumann’s essay did not describe him adequately. When the enthusiastic author referred to Brahms as “a player of genius, who can make of the piano an orchestra of lamenting and loudly jubilant voices”, he captured an essential characteristic of the impulsive, passionate composer. Schumann did in fact encounter Johannes Brahms, the romanticist, during his young colleague’s visit of several weeks to Düsseldorf in early autumn of 1853. But it was precisely this facet of the ardent, emotional musician that would increasingly be concealed over the years behind a deliberately serious, almost unapproachable countenance.
Whereas Schumann often referred to the flight of inspiration as the crucial moment of artistic invention and was clearly sceptical of “long reflection” when composing, Brahms tended to be suspicious of impulsiveness and spontaneity. Steeped in the ideals of the Protestant work ethic – economy, perseverance, discipline – he strove for “lasting” music which, thanks to its painstaking craftsmanship, would stand up to comparison with the greatest masters of the past. Naturally, Brahms also welcomed spontaneous ideas, but he regarded them at best as points of departure for the creative process: “What one actually calls invention, meaning a real idea, is, so to speak, a higher perception, inspiration, that is to say, I can’t help it. From then onward I cannot disdain this ‘gift’ enough, and through incessant labour I have to make it my legitimate, well-earned property.”
Schumann, who often composed during manic episodes, also forced himself to iron discipline. From a certain point in time he apparently even refrained from freely improvising at the piano for fear of uselessly exhausting his ideas. For the most part self-taught as a composer, he continually tried to perfect his skills through rigorous study of counterpoint. Although he had composed almost exclusively for the piano during his early creative period, between 1840 and 1843 Schumann explored other important musical genres in succession – from the lied (1840) to symphonic works (1841) and chamber music (1842) to oratorio (1843).
From the beginning both Schumann and Brahms were fully aware of the social prestige of the symphony. “I was quite happy and only wished that you were my wife and I could also write such symphonies,” Schumann confessed in a letter to Clara in December 1839, after hearing a rehearsal of Schubert’s “Great” C major Symphony in Leipzig, which he himself had discovered among Schubert’s papers. In his early years Brahms was also plagued by the idea that he would not enjoy sufficient status and recognition to marry until he had achieved success with large-scale orchestral music. As a consequence, after the disastrous failure of his First Piano Concerto at the Leipzig performance he broke off his engagement to Agathe von Siebold, the daughter of a Göttingen doctor.
Many accounts have described how intimidated composers of that time were by the expectations associated with the symphonic genre. Beethoven’s symphonies had taken on the character of community-building “speeches to humanity” (Adorno); they had thus become a kind of public appeal which was actually repugnant to contemporaries in the restorative, domestic era after Napoleon’s defeat. The historically unparalleled congruence of great ideas and grand gestures in Beethoven’s symphonies, the combination of dramatic force and inner logic – all this set a standard in which the mere attempt to create something new and universally valid appeared to be either naïvely inflated self-esteem or a near-heroic deed. The appropriate quotation on this score comes from Brahms, of course, who during the early 1870s let conductor Hermann Levi know why he would never compose a symphony: “You have no idea what it’s like always to hear such a giant marching along behind you.”
Schumann took an unconventional approach in his D minor Symphony, since the four movements follow each other without pause. He not only wanted to create new transitions through external means such as attaccaindications or open-ended movements but also to justify them on formal grounds, with thematic associations being the obvious choice. Thus, the main theme in the exposition of the first movement becomes the basis for various motivic derivations. The second movement draws on thematic material from the slow introduction, the Scherzo derives its triumphant theme from the first movement and the trio is also a variation of the beginning of the symphony. The slow introduction of the finale makes use of motifs from the opening of the first movement, while the exultant theme from the first movement reappears in the vehement main thematic complex, which now seems like a splendid recapitulation spanning the inner movements.
Brahms’s Fourth Symphony is regarded as the perfect example of a superbly and tightly constructed work, although the first movement is already pervaded with motivic cross references based on central intervals. The characteristic feature of the second movement is the juxtaposition of wind and string sound, through which the two main themes are clearly differentiated from each other. A burlesque third movement is followed by a finale that is unprecedented in the history of music, in which the composer’s skill in the art of variation reaches its peak. Over an unremitting, clearly distinguishable passacaglia theme, which is borrowed from Bach’s Cantata Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich (Lord, I long for you), BWV 150, Brahms is able to reveal new aspects of the Baroque chain form with figurations and inexhaustible imagination. Moreover, the passacaglia theme creates a motivic link to the first movement, giving the symphony a cyclical shape at the close.