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The Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98 by Johannes Brahms is the last of his symphonies. Brahms began working on the piece in Mürzzuschlag, then in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in 1884, just a year after completing his Symphony No. 3. It was premiered on October 25, 1885 in Meiningen, Germany.
The symphony is scored for two flutes (one doubling on piccolo), two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, contrabassoon (third and fourth movements), four horns, two trumpets, three trombones (fourth movement only), timpani, triangle (third movement only), and strings.
The symphony is divided into four movements with the following tempo markings:
This is the only one of Brahms' four symphonies to end in a minor key. A typical performance lasts about 40 minutes.
This movement is in sonata form, although it features some unique approaches to development. For instance, there is no repeat of the exposition; according to the late Malcolm MacDonald, the music is so "powerfully organic and continuously unfolding" that such a repeat would hinder forward progress.
The opening theme is initially serene in character, although its composition in a chain of descending thirds adds a fateful air. Its left-versus-right fragmented melodic form (duh-DUM, da-DEE, duh-DUM, da-DEE) also introduces a feeling of conflict which Brahms uses as a fundamental motivation throughout the movement.
|1||Primary theme||E minor||Starts with pick-up note. This relatively fragmented melody forms a descending sequence in the upper instruments in dialogue with the lower instruments. The notes (taken out of register) outline a row of descending thirds - B, G, E, C, A, F♯, D♯, B - a unifying motif for this work.|
|19||Transition modulation to second theme||Goes from E minor to the dominant B minor||Starts by fragmenting the primary theme|
|53||Transition motif||Transition motif: a rhythmic pattern in the woodwinds|
|57||Secondary theme period 1||B minor||Initially in the cellos, then passed up into the violins with intermittent play with transition motif.|
|95||Secondary theme period 2||B major - parallel major of B minor||In the woodwinds.|
|107||Transition motif||B major||Using transition motif pp to ff.|
|137||Transition modulation to development||Lead from B major into E minor||Using primary theme material|
|145||Development||Various||Starts with a statement of the primary theme before leading away into a development|
|246||Recapitulation||E minor||Slow version of primary theme in the upper instruments (initially in C major harmony) with intermittent use of transition motif followed by lengthy recapitulation of secondary theme block in the dominant key.|
|394||Coda||E minor||Final climactic statement of the primary theme in ff.|
Featuring a theme in the Hypophrygian mode, heard at the beginning unaccompanied and at the end with a lush orchestral accompaniment, this movement has a modified sonata form with no development section.
|1||Introduction||C major (Phrygian mode)||Introduction to the principal theme by horns|
|5||Principal theme||E major||Several statements of the principal theme|
|36||Transition theme||B minor||Dominated by the wind sections|
|41||Secondary theme||B minor||Initially in the cellos, then passed up into the violins|
|50||Secondary theme cadence and transition theme||B major||Using transition motif pp to ff.|
|64||Recapitulation||Various keys||Recapitulation quite similar in structure to the exposition|
|106||Coda||E major (Phrygian mode)||Free play of themes with frequent use of arpeggios|
This movement is the only true scherzo found in Brahms' symphonies. It is in sonata form with foreshortened recapitulation and with the secondary theme nearly absent in the development and coda.
|1||Primary theme||C major and E♭ major||Primary theme consisting of three different periods (ordered 1-2-3-1)|
|46||Transition to secondary theme||Transition to G major||Based on the first period of the primary theme|
|52||Secondary theme||G major||Secondary theme followed by elements of a transition to the development|
|89||Development||Various keys||Based on the primary theme block with a slow trio-like section based on the second period of the first theme.|
|181||Transition to recapitulation||Modulation from D♭ major to C major|
|199||Recapitulation||C and G key areas||Restatement of primary theme starting with the second period (2-3-1) followed by restatement the secondary theme and then transition theme leading to coda|
|282||Coda||C and G key areas||Final statement of the period 1 and 2 of the primary theme block (in the order 1-2-1)|
This last movement is notable as a rare example of a symphonic passacaglia, which is similar to a chaconne with the slight difference that the subject can appear in more voices than the bass. For the repeating theme, Brahms adapted the chaconne theme in the closing movement of Johann Sebastian Bach's cantata, Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich, BWV 150.
An analysis of this last movement by Walter Frisch provides yet further interpretation to Brahms' structure of this work, by giving sections sonata form dimensions.
Arnold Schoenberg, in his essay Brahms the Progressive (Brahms is often characterized as an conservative composer), pointed out several thematic relationships in the score, as does Malcolm MacDonald in his biography of the composer. The first half of the chaconne theme is anticipated in the bass during the coda at an important point of the preceding movement; and the first movement's descending thirds, transposed by a fifth, appear in counterpoint during one of the final variations of the chaconne.
|1||Theme||E minor||Statement of theme and main chordal structure|
|9||Variations 1-11||Mostly in E minor and C major key areas as well as in other keys||Variations match the bar count and chordal structure (though in some variations transposed to different key). 3|
|97||Variations 12-15||E major and A major key area||Variations match the bar count (though with bars lasting twice as long) and chordal structure ((though transposed to different key areas)). 3|
|129||Variations 16-23||E major and A major key area||Variations match the bar count and chordal structure (though transposed to different key areas). 3|
|193||Variations 24-26||Mostly in E minor and C major key area||Structurally variation 24 is similar to variation 1, variation 25 is similar to variation 2 and variation 26 is similar to variation 3. 3|
|217||Variations 27-30||Mostly in E minor and C major key area||Variations match the bar count and chordal structure (though transposed to different key areas). 3|
|249||Transition to coda||E major and C major key area||Extension of the last variation (variation 30).|
|253||Coda||Many different key areas||Playing on material from the variations with intermittent quasi-variations|
|297||Final statement of theme||E minor||Compressed statement of theme and final cadence|
The work was given its premiere in Meiningen on October 25, 1885 with Brahms himself conducting. The piece had earlier been given to a small private audience in a version for two pianos, played by Brahms and Ignaz Brüll. Brahms' friend and biographer Max Kalbeck, reported that the critic Eduard Hanslick, acting as one of the page-turners, exclaimed on hearing the first movement at this performance: "For this whole movement I had the feeling that I was being given a beating by two incredibly intelligent people." Hanslick, however, wrote also that "[for] the musician, there is not another modern piece so productive as a subject for study. It is like a dark well; the longer we look into it, the more brightly the stars shine back." 
The symphony is rich in allusions, most notably to various Beethoven compositions. The symphony may well have been inspired by the play Antony and Cleopatra, which Brahms had been researching at the time.