A Dark Rebuke From Brahms to The Frivolity of Strauss' Vienna

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A Dark Rebuke From Brahms to The Frivolity of Strauss' Vienna

Johannes Brahms was contemptuous of his Viennese contemporaries' infatuation with the music of Johann Strauss, and this shows in the nicknames he gave his own "Symphony No. 4 in E minor." He sarcastically called the third movement, which was in 4/4 time, a "polka," and the fourth movement, in 3/4 time, a "waltz."

In fact, "Symphony No. 4 in E minor" is the antithesis of the frivolous, cheerful dance music he was deriding. From end to end, the symphony is a kaleidoscope of sad melodies of introspection and profound emotion. The fourth movement is not a waltz but a passacaglia, a type of Baroque-style variation. Brahms based the movement on a simple passage from the final chorus of Johann Sebastian Bach's "Cantata No. 150," and produced 34 variations on the melody.

The symphony, reminiscent of the Romantic era, also possesses Baroque characteristics and is proof that the Baroque tradition was still effective in later years. By the time Brahms wrote the symphony, he was in his early 50s and was fascinated by ancient Greek tragedies such as Sophocles' "Oedipus." He was also interested in Baroque music, in particular works composed by Bach, Georg Friedrich Handel and Francois Couperin. Brahms transferred such interests onto his music.

The symphony premiered in 1885 in Meiningen, home to one of Germany's finest orchestras, and was conducted by Brahms himself. When the symphony was introduced to the public it did not get a favorable reception from the audience. Only later did critics begin to value the symphony as a great piece. The craftsmanship, characteristic of Brahms, shines at the beginning of the first movement, where he creates an atmosphere of gloom instead of opting for the light, sweet melodies usually inserted into a symphony's first movement.

On hearing the second movement, the composer Richard Strauss saw images of a funeral procession conducted in silence under the soft moonlight. The conductor Hans von Bulow referred to the rocklike strength of human will in the fourth movement. The best known movement, however, is the third, full of explosive energy that makes listeners clench their fists.

"Symphony No. 4 in E minor," performed by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and conducted by Carlos Kleiber in 1980 in Vienna, was made into a recording on the Deutsche Gramophon label. The orchestra succeeded in capturing the many subtle and beautiful moments that are easy to miss in the flood of magnificent orchestral sound. lully@joongang.co.kr

by Lee Jang-jik

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