It’s been a bit of an experiment – but as part of our contribution to Passion 4 Life events at All Souls, 2 friends (pianists extraordinaire, Craig Hudson & Robin Stephenson) and I have put on a little evening’s package for people to hold in their homes. We’ve called it a Brahms Soirée, and the idea is that Craig & Robin play Brahms’ 4th Symphony arranged for 4 hands on 1 piano, and I give a short talk, introducing the piece and throwing out a few provocations to think about during the performance. We had our first last night, and we’re going to repeat it in one or two other places.

Never quite done a talk like this – so an experiment, as I say. But here it is, in case it is of interest. Also, in case you want to get a recording of it, here are the suggestions from Radio 3’s Building a Library (this symphony is at the bottom of the page).


Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897) was one of the greats – his name has gone down in music history as one of the 3 B’s – Bach, Beethoven and Brahms – giants whose presence is impossible to ignore. Another thing these 3 men all had in common was that they were not necessarily easy to get on with. That’s often the way with geniuses. Karl Goldmark was a composer friend who said this:

Brahms was built on big lines and was absolutely truthful. He could not tell even the ordinary conventional fib. … But he was never accustomed to… holding his tongue. If he disliked anything he would say so frankly. This bluntness, combined with his rough manner, frequently made him appear very harsh. One evening, Brahms, on taking leave of his hostess at a party, said, ‘Kindly excuse me if by chance I have forgotten to offend one of your guests.’

At least he had a degree of self-awareness. But faults often have their positive flip sides – and Brahms equally faced life’s realities very truthfully and honestly. So one of the themes we’ll explore is the emotional honesty of his music.

The Fourth Symphony was published in 1885, and bar a concerto and a number of chamber pieces, it was his final large scale work. He was 52, and would live another 12 years. But the question I’m interested in is what is he communicating? For you don’t write a 40 minute piece of music unless you have something to say – even if it is hard to express it well in words. Well, it is not a word we use very much – but I want to suggest it is the word ‘Rage’.

Now, I lived and worked for 4 years in Kampala in Uganda before moving back to London in 2005 – I can tell you that on the roads of Kampala I discovered depths of road rage that I never knew I had. But that is not the rage we’re dealing with here. No – I’m thinking about the rage that seems to lie at the heart of the Fourth Symphony – which is a surprise when we remember that this is Brahms’ last really grand statement. Its rage has been noted by one or two writers – and as I’ve listened to itmany times in the last few months, it comes across clearly.

So what provoked this rage? Now it’s notoriously difficult to pin down the emotional impact of any music, let alone something as monumental as a symphony. But there are some things to say. And I just wonder if we can hear resonances with something written almost 70 years later by the great welsh poet, Dylan Thomas. Written just 2 years before he died, Thomas raged against our mortality. Death: such an invasion, such an interruption, such an offence.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

But isn’t this just the way it is? That’s life – life ends. Does that explain the symphony’s rage? Well, it may well be part of it – but I think there’s more. For it’s not constantly full of rage – it plumbs the depths of emotion, from the jubilant through the melancholic and the tragic to the downright furious. But what is significant, is that the 1st and 4th movements (the bookends, if you like) both conclude with a mood that is hard to hear as anything but fury. And that is significant – that is what he leaves us with, his last grand statement.

The moods in the middle are therefore like a struggle to overcome this sentiment, trying to find a resolution. But the rage wins out, and the last minutes of the 4th movement are overwhelming. One writer described the climax of the 4th movement as one of Brahms’ “most monumental fits of rage”. How do we get there?

1: Allegro non troppo

The opening doesn’t waste time – from the first bar we’re immersed in a sense of melancholy, a gentle elegy – but we’re not yet sure why. It is an achingly beautiful introduction – and there is just the hint of the tragedy to come. But the movement is long – around 12 or 13 minutes – and complex. There are surprises aplenty, there are joys and triumphs. But it’s as if we can’t escape the inevitable – by its conclusion, all the musical threads have come together, in a tragic, minor key. Yet we know there’s more (it’s only the 1st movement of 4 after all) – there’s a sense of something unresolved. What’s coming next? This is what one critic said:

We naturally crave an emotional resolution to what we have just heard. The three remaining parts of the symphony can thus be seen as different reactions to the events unfolding in the first movement. (Hurwitz, Brahms’ Symphonies, Continuum, p133)

2: Andante Moderato

This is slow, intense, and in fact, almost as long as the first. It contains rhythmical fanfares in the horns but also wonderfully rich, lyrical melodies, which the strings get to really milk for all they’re worth. I’m sure imagining all this won’t be a problem in Craig and Robin’s hands!

There is something pastoral, something almost fairy-tale about it. The fanfares are like archetypal calls of huntsmen in Viennese forests and the main theme seems to have echoes of folk music – so could this be a flight from the agonies of the first movement to the idylls of the countryside? Could it be escapism? The melody undergoes a number of variations, as if Brahms is holding onto the experience, achingly not wanting to leave. But he can’t stop – there is a relentlessness too here, as we’re propelled onto the climax, as intense as the first movement’s climax is tragic. Is this one possible response to the tragedy? To escape for the idyllic and pastoral, in the hope it will go away?

3: Allegro giocoso – Poco meno presto – Tempo 1

This is fast – and is even marked ‘giocoso’ meaning cheerful or jolly. Which is quite a surprise after what we’ve just heard. Yet more is going on. The joy feels a bit contrived – almost manic. It is a bit like an emotionally volatile person who is on a real high, a bit hyper. For their friends, there’s a relief that they’re out of the dumps, perhaps; but also a bit of wariness about what’s really going on underneath.

The 3rd movement is a bit of a barnstormer, fun, brilliant and exciting. But what is Brahms doing here? Is it a sense of trying to make the best of a bad job? I remember as a child going on long car journeys. And if the traffic was bad or whatever, and we were all feeling grim, my mother would do the honourable parent thing and say ‘let’s play a game’. Let’s do something fun – just to make it all go away. But of course, you still feel car sick, the traffic is still heavy, and you’re still on the road to that aged aunt you didn’t want to stay with in the first place.

The jollity of the 3rd movement still seems contrived and is haunted by dark clouds gathering on the horizon.

4: Allegro energico e passionato – Piu allegro

So we come at last to the glorious 4th- it is an overwhelming statement. And it is driven forward by the fact that it is a passacaglia – an Italian word derived from the Spanish pasar (to walk) and calle (street). This means that a recurring bass line holds it all together. Sometimes you might not be aware of it but it keeps coming back, like the relentlessness of fate, the inescapability of our mortality. It’s as if in the 2nd movement we tried to avoid it through escapism; in the 3rd through enforced jollity. But we can’t.

The bass line recurs with variations over the top, displaying a range of emotions – fear, anxiety, bravado. For instance, listen out for the beautiful quiet section before the momentum builds and builds until it can’t be contained. The rage overwhelms and rushes to form the mighty climax of the whole symphony.

Of course, it’s pure speculation as to what caused Brahms’ rage. Some have tried. But let me put it like this: if some aspects of our world didn’t cause you rage then I’d question your humanity: like earthquakes in Haiti or Chile, the corruption and dictatorships of Zimbabwe or Burma, the horrors of child abuse or human trafficking and so on. They provoke deep rage. They must!

But what do we do with that? Or more to the point, where do we take it? Brahms’ great friend Antonin Dvorak was a man of religious faith, and he sometimes despaired at Brahms’ total agnosticism. Dvorak said of him: “Such a man, such a soul – and he doesn’t believe in anything, he doesn’t believe in anything!”

But Brahms’ rage against fate, against our mortality, against human suffering – whatever it is, persisted. If there is no God, what do we do? Well our friend Richard Dawkins puts it starkly:

In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt. We cannot find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is at the bottom no design, no purpose, no evil, and no good; nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is, and we dance to its music. (‘The Evolution of the Darwin Man’, publ. in 2000 in The Sydney Morning Herald.)

Well, I don’t know what Brahms would have made of that – but he certainly shows no resignation to the music of the cosmos – his stand is one of resistance, and enraged resistance at that. Still – there is an inescapable logic to Dawkins. And if true, it renders even our rage futile.

But let me finish with a final thought – because I would argue that it is only if there IS a God that suffering is allowed to be a problem, or rather a question we can ask. Without a God, there is no one to ask. And the wonder of the Christian message is that there is a God to ask. And he does not give glib answers or pat solutions. I lived for a number of years in Africa – and I struggled to understand a lot of the agonies, especially as a Christian. But I do know this: the Christian God is one who knows first hand what this is about. His response was to come and get his hands dirty, to become one of us and to suffer the worst of us – at the cross. He is a God who knows – and who promises one day to wipe away every tear and every sorrow.

That is why I what to finish by referring to Edward Shillito’s famous poem Jesus of the Scars – he was a Christian pastor who had done his time years in the trenches of the 1st world war. The only thing that helped him through it was the God who was weak, who stumbled to his throne, who suffered wounds – Jesus of the scars, the only God to have been wounded thus.

Jesus of the Scars

If we have never sought, we seek Thee now;
Thine eyes burn through the dark, our only stars;
We must have sight of thorn-pricks on Thy brow;
We must have Thee, O Jesus of the Scars.

The heavens frighten us; they are too calm;
In all the universe we have no place.
Our wounds are hurting us; where is the balm?
Lord Jesus, by Thy Scars we claim Thy grace.

If when the doors are shut, Thou drawest near,
Only reveal those hands, that side of Thine;
We know today what wounds are; have no fear;
Show us Thy Scars; we know the countersign.

The other gods were strong, but Thou wast weak;
They rode, but Thou didst stumble to a throne;
But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak,
And not a god has wounds, but Thou alone.

Rev Edward Shillito (1872-1948) (Quoted in John Stott, Cross of Christ, p337)

You see, we don’t have to end where Brahms 4th does – we don’t have to be left flailing in our doubt and confusion. Because of Christ, the answer to our rage is not the escapism of the 2nd movement or the enforced jollity of the 3rd. Instead it is by coming to the God who knows us and loves us, and above all gets angry at the same things too – how could he not? And more than that, he comes to do something about it – first at the cross, and finally at the end of it all. As someone once brilliantly put it, the cross of Christ is God’s only self-justification in a world such as ours (P T Forsyth, quoted in Stott p336). But what I love about this symphony is that it sweeps us up in these sorts of emotions and therefore the underlying questions. I hope it does that for you too.

Final thought – we might never have had this symphony. The conductor Hans von Bülow reproached Brahms for sending the manuscript of the Fourth Symphony, of which no copy existed, as an ordinary postal packet, not even registered.  “What would we have done had the packet gone astray?” The composer answered: “In that case, I would have had to write the symphony anew.” Thank goodness the postman did his stuff!

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This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. Andrew

    This is great! I’m not as familiar with Brahm’s symphonic works as I probably ought to be, but I think his German Requiem is one of the great pieces of music

  2. markmeynell

    thanks Andrew – too right about the Requiem, though Brahms’ theological moorings are unusual to say the least!

  3. Nicholas Clews

    This was a fascinating article. I have known and loved Brahms’ fourth for thirty-seven years and for most of those years have assumed, as a Christian, that it was fundamentally untrue. That is to say, I have assumed the symphony expresses an essentially melancholy and pessimistic view of life which is at odds with the Christian faith. It is fascinating to read a different view. And particularly good to see it linked with the Dylan Thomas poem that I sometimes quote as funerals.

    Thank you.

    1. quaesitor

      thanks very much for the comment Nicholas!

  4. bdh

    thanks for more insight into one of my favorite pieces. As a Christian I appreciate your take on this. And I had no idea of the postal story!

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