I missed the Baltimore Symphony in Brahms 4 this weekend so I could hear L'Orchestre National de France. I'm not sorry I did, since the resulting concert was pretty glorious and thrilling. Nevertheless, an opportunity to visit with Brahms 4 is like passing up a visit with an old friend - to be sure, a melancholy, sometimes dispiriting one that you sometimes avoid, but to imagine your life without this good and great friend would be a tragedy.
Tragedy is at the center of Brahms 4 - not a heroic tragedy in which a great man falls from a height, but the small and banal tragedy of living itself. I don't speak for anyone else in my view of this piece, but I view Brahms 4 as a kind of metaphor for daily life and all its piling up of stresses and frustrations, until the tragedy of its endless setbacks overwhelms us with the stark truth of what it means to live.
The very themes themselves of this symphony announce themselves in the most banal possible ways. Harmonically, the first movement is nothing more than a chain of thirds going down the scale (in varying octaves): B-G-E-C-A-F#-D#-B; and then back up the scale: E-G-B-D-F-A-C. Rhythmically, moves about in a foursquare manner so nondescript that we have to call it something between a dance and a trudge. I can't presume to know what Brahms meant by this design, but what a perfect musical metaphor for daily life! Do the same routines every day, endless drudgery and predictability, inevitable boredom. Every time we (or the music) tries to break out from our routines, the necessity of these routine reassert themselves.
In Brahms's own time, it was very easy to mistaken this metaphor for banality for banality itself. Another great composer, Hugo Wolf, wrote of Brahms's Fourth Symphony:
"He (Brahms) never could rise above the mediocre. But such nothingness, hollowness, such mousy obsequiousness as the e-minor Symphony has never yet been revealed so alarmingly in any of Brahms's works. The art of composing without ideas has decidedly found in Brahms one of its worthiest representatives. Like God Almighty, Brahms understands the trick of making something out of nothing. Enough of this hideous game!"
Just as in life, these banal routines provide the foundation for future growth. In the span of only a minute, the inventiveness Brahms can spin from these paltriest of musical material is as ornate as the Nave of a Cathedral, because Brahms's ability to create musical greenhouses from the least promising seeds is probably unmatched by any composer since Bach, and eventually breaking out in a weary, exhausting kind of dance. Leonard Bernstein called it an 'almost tango,' the kind of tango that exhausts us - like the experience of being at a party we don't want to go to. We have to pretend we're having fun, but we're getting no satisfaction out of it at all. It's as if we're denied even satisfaction from things which are supposed to be fun.
We're only two minutes into the symphony at this point. But inevitably, what do you do after you go to a party? You go to sleep, or at least you take a nap. For the first time, the breaks into a satisfying reverie, and you can almost hear in music the process of going to sleep. Until suddenly you're in dreamland, with its shadowy world of half-perceived figures, which suddenly erupt as a full-fledged reality, only for us to wake up and go back to our routine again.
When we go back to this routine the second time, the routine takes a different path. But it can't be mistaken for anything that isn't equally onerous. It grows in anger as though Brahms is saying "I'll do it, but I don't like it." And then, just as suddenly, Brahms enters the world of dreams again - but this time, it's quite sudden, like a daydream, only to shake himself out of it and frantically scramble around in double time (called diminution in musical circles) to fulfill all of his routines and responsibilities in haste to make up for all the time lost.
And then comes the masterstroke, the real sleep, perhaps the final sleep. Over the span of ninty seconds, you hear the life gradually ebbing from the music, is the music going to sleep, or is the music dying?
Perhaps Brahms provided a clue in this song of his: O Death, How Bitter Are You (linked below)
O Tod, O Tod - O Death, O Death. Those four syllables begin with the exact same chain of thirds with which the whole movement began, and which now is stated at one quarter the speed, the music is so unbelievably still, dreamlike, creepy, so deadly serious.
But then, back to routine yet again. The same threading the needle through that chain of thirds, the same boring party, the same nap and dream, but this time, something goes wrong with the routine. Perhaps because of the realization that all there is is the routine itself, until the routine ends. Or perhaps it's because exhaustion has now made the urgency of this routine too great. But whatever happens, this time, the routine misfires, and we're left with what sounds like devastating tragedy.
It's true, from these banal routines, Brahms creates musical edifices out of his small building blocks, but there are few composers who seem more to show the wear and tear of their herculean efforts to make music, we can almost hear his exhaustion from lifting the bricks and mortar.
I could go through the entire symphony like this with half-baked ideas for what the music describes. The second movement, with its glorying in the small consolations that get us through the day. The third movement, with its forced celebration that by the end becomes genuine, only to be much too short to be of any true consolation. And then that glorious and terrifying finale, which seems to express the futility of breaking out from this absurd, tragic, disappointing thing we call life. And yet, because we've undergone it, because we know we've carried ourselves as best we could in the circumstances, there's still something beautiful about it.