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Classical music often is typecast as mired in the past, and with good reason — just consider the repertoire of the vast majority of CDs and concert hall programs. Yet the composers of the past we most admire were not the conservatives of their eras but rather those who were at the forefront of innovation and who rarely looked back to their roots. Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) was different. He unabashedly turned to the past for contemporary relevance. Music critic Harold Schonberg dubbed him “The Keeper of the Flame.” In the raging cultural war of his time, Brahms was regarded as the pillar of conservatism and was vaunted as a rampart against the progressive threat typified by Wagner. The activists fought Brahms with a vengeance — composer Hugo Wolf condemned his art as one of composing without ideas, a trick of making something out of nothing. Yet as Leonard Bernstein noted, Wolf’s remark, although intended as an indictment, in fact identifies the key to Brahms’ greatness and, indeed, encapsulates the essence of symphonic form, in which rudimentary materials are developed to generate a universe of meaning. Yet the great conductor Wilhelm Furtw�ngler viewed Brahms as a sort of radical — the first great composer who proudly stood apart from the trends of his time because they did not satisfy his needs, a creator of an art that was independent of history and that was founded upon inner logic. As music critic John Ardoin observed, the challenge of Brahms transcends the simplistic friction of new versus old or innovation versus tradition — he plunges us into the deeper impasse of man against his times. We all feel pressure to conform or rebel, but Brahms just did his own thing — a thoroughly bold and modern attitude for a supposed archconservative! Brahms’ sense of history was well-informed, as he was the first great composer who was also a musicologist. His interests and knowledge not only embraced the folk music of his time but extended back to Renaissance composer Palestrina and the dawn of our musical heritage in the 16th century. The depth of Brahms’ scholarship is evident throughout his career, and it is never more so than in his fourth and final symphony. BRAHMS’ REVOLT The first movement is built upon the simplest of motifs — a mere two notes in a falling third (and, by raising the second note an octave, a rising sixth). In a sense, Brahms tweaked his enemies’ reverence for Beethoven, whose revolutionary Fifth Symphony was celebrated for being based on a phrase of four notes. But here Brahms trumped him by using a mere two! Yet Brahms’ revolt was historically based — the theme unfolds in the strings and is echoed by the winds, thus forming a canon, one of the very earliest musical devices. Indeed, the opening is a prime example of Brahms’ natural ability to compose within the strictest and oldest of structures, yet with a fluid, modern sound that belies rigidity. Brahms reserved his boldest yet most conservative move for the finale, which seamlessly combines innovation and tradition. Its form is a transparent melding of three seemingly disparate structures from key historical eras: the theme and variations so beloved in Brahms’ own time; the sonata form of the preceding classical period; and, from the earlier Baroque era, a passacaglia, in which a simple bass figure is constantly repeated without alteration. In keeping with his penchant for scholarly research, Brahms derived his theme from the then-unpublished and thus unknown 150th cantata of Bach, the master of the baroque, whose passacaglia-like chaconne for solo violin Brahms worshipped. In developing his material into a symphonic movement, Brahms observes a strict structure of 30 variations and a coda with only one brief change of key. Along the way, his variations manage to evoke and summarize the efficient progression and descending motif of the opening movement, the poignant modal tension and lyricism of the second, and the ecstatic vigor of the third. The huge variety of mood, texture, color, and rhythm is seamlessly combined into a smooth, logical flow of cumulative momentum that seems wildly inventive, but in fact is tightly controlled at all times and is set within a fundamental aura of dignity and reserve. Music scholar Walter Frisch called the finale of the Brahms Fourth the most extraordinary symphonic movement between Beethoven and Mahler, and critic Julian Haylock credits it with a level of technical ingenuity that surpasses almost anything else in the symphonic repertoire. Composer and scholar Jan Swafford noted Brahms’ apprehension about the onset of old age and the symbolic recognition that he was one of the last members of the music-loving Austrian middle class. Thus he saw the Brahms Fourth as an autumnal reflection summarizing the essence of his work and cultural tradition. Yet it concludes with a defiant gesture — a brief coda tries to restate the theme, gets stuck on the fifth and only chromatic note, then plunges forward with resolute energy that fragments the theme, abrades the prevalent tonality, and collapses from the effort of rebellion. BRAHMS AS CONDUCTOR Brahms conducted the first public performance of his Fourth Symphony in October 1885 with Germany’s Meiningen Orchestra, which then took the work on a 14-city tour. The choice of ensemble was significant to evoke his aural image. Although Brahms had prepared his previous two symphonies for the Vienna Philharmonic, his hometown orchestra, the 48-member Meiningen was barely half as large, and Brahms reportedly declined an offer to augment it. The resulting lean texture and instrumental balance harked back a century to the classical court bands familiar to Mozart and Haydn, before volume soared and massive string sections came to dominate orchestral textures. A key to Brahms’ erratic podium style lies in a detailed account by observer Walter Blume of the Brahms symphonies as conducted by Fritz Steinbach, who led the Meiningen from 1886 to 1903 and who basked in Brahms’ approval. A 1997 recording by Charles Mackerras and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra (Telarc CD) is based on the Blume description and revives the trim sonority, delicate phrasing, precise dynamics, prominent winds, and braying brass presumably familiar to the composer. Brahms, though, left confusing clues to his own outlook. He deemed one famous conductor’s performances of his work to be dull, gray, uninspired, and misunderstood, yet disparaged more outgoing readings as “calculated for effects,” asserting that he would have marked more inflections in the score had he intended them. Even so, in an 1886 letter he stated that the expressive markings in his scores were useful for a first performance by an inexperienced orchestra but that he encouraged personal modifications once conductors became familiar with the music. Consistent with this outlook, Brahms crossed out many of the tempo indications from his autograph score before publication, presumably to encourage performers to sense their own style. We have only two recordings of the Fourth from conductors who knew Brahms firsthand, and they represent the poles of interpretive approaches. Felix Weingartner (1863-1942) recorded his interpretation with the London Symphony in 1938 (EMI), nearly a half-century after he had worked with the composer. Fundamentally steadfast, restrained, elegant, subtly inflected, and shorn of rhetoric, his style effortlessly integrates the work’s elements and displays its essential structure and dignity. In keeping with his straightforward approach, his traditionally slow andante movement is the fastest on record, while his normally animated scherzo is the slowest. Yet all seems wholly natural, a blend of relaxation and assurance that keeps all the elements in a confident balance that never threatens to supplant the composer’s personality. Weingartner invites us into the interior world of Brahms. Max Fiedler (1859-1939) only took up conducting after Brahms died, but the composer had admired his piano playing and they became close friends. His 1930 recording with the Berlin State Opera Orchestra (Biddulph) is highly impulsive and mystical, constantly alive with emphatic phrasing, tempo extremes, and bold, expressive touches that announce an equal partnership between composer and interpreter. Fiedler provides a deeply personal journey to find passion beneath the surface of the score. Yet, his approach is just as persuasive and organic as Weingartner’s — and, though different, thoroughly convincing and idiomatic.
Peter Gutmann is a partner in the D.C. office of Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice. A survey of historical recordings of the Brahms Fourth are on his Web site.

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