Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Brahms: The Four Symphonies

Brahms: The Four Symphonies

Walter Frisch
Copyright Date: 2003
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 240
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Brahms: The Four Symphonies
    Book Description:

    This book is the definitive guide to Johannes Brahms's four symphonies. It presents an engaging and thorough treatment of the genesis, structure, reception, and performance history of these internationally admired and frequently performed works. Walter Frisch provides a sensitive analytical commentary on the symphonies as well as a consideration of their place within Brahms's oeuvre, within the symphonic repertory of his day, and within the broader musical culture of nineteenth-century Germany and Austria. Frisch also pays particular attention to the evolution of performance style since Brahms's symphonies were first heard.The book begins with an investigation of the different ideologies of the symphony in the decades leading up to Brahms's First. Brahms's early development as a composer is also examined. Frisch then devotes a detailed chapter to each of the four symphonies, including an in-depth analysis of each movement. A separate chapter treats the reception of Brahms's symphonies, and the book concludes with a history of the performances of the symphonies in the concert hall and in early recordings.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-18578-2
    Subjects: Music

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. ix-xii)

    The Yale Music Masterworks series is devoted to the examination of single works, or groups of works, that have changed the course of Western music by virtue of their greatness. Some were recognized as masterpieces almost as soon as they were written. Others lay in obscurity for decades, to be uncovered and revered only by later generations. With the passage of time, however, all have emerged as cultural landmarks.

    The Masterworks volumes are written by historians and performers, specialists who bring to their accounts the latest discoveries of modern scholarship. The authors examine the political, economic, and cultural background of...

  4. Preface and Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
    (pp. 1-28)

    In his authoritativeAllgemeine Musiklehreof 1839, A. B. Marx, a leading German writer on music, defined the symphony as

    an orchestral composition in the sonata-form, but, in accordance with the great powers of an orchestra … usually constructed upon large, massive and well-defined proportions. It mostly consists of an introduction, allegro, andante, scherzo, and finale; all of which movements are more fully developed and more powerfully marked than is thought necessary in a sonata.¹

    Although accurate as far as it goes, this dry description scarcely begins to account for the hallowed position the genre of the symphony assumed in...

    (pp. 29-44)

    As been suggested in the last chapter, from the 1830s on the “symphonic style” came to comprise the most elevated set of compositional procedures and priorities in Austro-German music and as a result penetrated into genres other than the symphonyper se. In this light, Brahms may be said to have displayed symphonic ambitions and skills early on, even though his actual First Symphony was completed only in his forty-fourth year.

    Brahms’s first surviving instrumental compositions, written between 1851 and 1853, are three imposing piano sonatas, opp. 1, 2, and 5, and the E-minor Scherzo, op. 4. It was the...

  7. Chapter 3 THE FIRST SYMPHONY, OP. 68
    (pp. 45-66)

    The First Symphony has a distinctive large-scale structure that belies to some extent the protracted and discontinuous genesis of the work. There is a parallelism between the slow introductions to the first and last movements, and the finale works out and brings to resolution tonal and thematic processes set in motion in the first movement. As critics have often pointed out, Brahms’s First follows an expressive and technical trajectory ofper aspera ad astra; this quasi-narrative scheme can be, and has been, also interpreted as a journey through darkness to light, pain to joy, struggle to victory. Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony—...

  8. Chapter 4 THE SECOND SYMPHONY, OP. 73
    (pp. 67-90)

    The genesis of the Second Symphony seems to have been as uncomplicated and swift as the First’s was tortured and protracted. Although we do not know how much sketching or creative thought might have preceded the writing out of the score, all the available evidence points to a relatively smooth process of composition in the summer of 1877, when Brahms was also busy correcting proofs and preparing the four-hand arrangement for the First.

    Commentators have often suggested that the prevailingly sunny character of the Second—at least the first, third, and fourth movements—owes something to the natural surroundings in...

  9. Chapter 5 THE THIRD SYMPHONY, OP. 90
    (pp. 91-114)

    Very little hard information survives about the genesis of the Third Symphony. As Christian Schmidt has observed, “All we know are the place and time of its completion: Wiesbaden, Geisbeigerstraße 19, c/o Frau von Dewitz, where Brahms spent the summer of 1883.”¹ Six years had elapsed since the composition of the Second Symphony. The interregnum was by no means devoid of orchestral activity on Brahms’s part: it included the Violin Concerto, op. 77 (1878); the Academic Festival Overture, op. 80, and the Tragic Overture, op. 81 (both 1880); and the Second Piano Concerto, op. 83 (1881). Each shows Brahms at...

  10. Chapter 6 THE FOURTH SYMPHONY, OP. 98
    (pp. 115-140)

    Brahms composed his last symphony during the summers of 1884 and 1885 in the resort town of Mürzzuschlag, about seventy miles southwest of Vienna at the foot of the Semmering Mountains. From annotations in his ownNotizkalenderwe learn that he wrote the first two movements in 1884, the last two in 1885.¹ The entry for 1885 reads “Finale und Scherzo,” which might suggest that the finale actually predated the scherzo in that summer.

    Brahms offered the first performance not, as in the case of his two preceding symphonies, to the Vienna Philharmonic but to the court orchestra of Meiningen,...

    (pp. 141-162)

    Broadly defined, the history of reception studies how, where, when, and why works of art have been understood, performed, and appreciated. We can distinguish between contemporary reception, which deals with works in their own day, and posthumous reception, which focuses on the period after a composer’s death. Each of these very grossly drawn categories can—and must—be further broken down. For it is clear that reception of individual works will vary within a composer’s life.

    In an absolute sense, reception can be said to include every human response to a work outside of the work itself. Indeed, for those...

    (pp. 163-188)

    At the beginning of the last chapter it was observed that the symphonies of Brahms have remained a more-or-less constant presence in the concert hall since the end of the nineteenth century. Yet over time their sonorous identity, as determined by the ways in which they are realized in performance, has unquestionably changed. Much of the early history of this aspect of the symphonies is unrecoverable or unverifiable. Brahms’s symphonies came into being at the dawn of the age of recorded sound. We know that Brahms took a lively, even participatory interest in recording technology.¹ But neither he nor any...

  13. Appendix I: A Chronology of the Brahms Symphonies
    (pp. 189-192)
  14. Appendix II: Sources and Editions
    (pp. 193-196)
  15. Notes
    (pp. 197-216)
  16. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 217-222)
  17. Index
    (pp. 223-226)