“It certainly sounds ‘popular’ enough, and people seem to like that”, Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) remarked in early August 1938, after the first rehearsals for the première of his Piano Concerto Opus 13. The work was intended for the famous BBC Proms. Britten saw this as a fine opportunity to appear as both composer and pianist, and wrote a virtuoso piece that was bursting with energy. The work was well received by the audience, but music critics reacted with scepticism and considered that the concerto contained errors in taste. This response caused Britten to doubt himself: seven years after the première, he undertook a revision and replaced the entire third movement of his only piano concerto.
This youthful work is followed on the programme by the Fourth Symphony of Johannes Brahms (1833-1897), a composition written at the end of his life. But even the renowned Brahms was overcome by doubt after he had played the symphony on the piano for a few of his closest friends and failed to elicit a positive response. He even thought of publishing the final movement a standalone concert piece. Fortunately, he stuck to his original idea, for in his Fourth Symphony, Brahms shows that he is at the summit of his ability. This is the purest symphonic music, in which he is able to create a perfect combination of the classical form and romantic expression.
When Britten received a commission from the BBC, at the beginning of 1938, to write a concerto for the next BBC Proms and to perform it himself as the soloist, he seized the opportunity to prove himself as a composer and a pianist. The first movement simply flowed out of his pen. After that, things were a bit more difficult; the second movement he described in his diary as a ‘mess’. He finished the score just in time for the rehearsals, and on 13 August he performed the première with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Henry Wood.
In the programme notes for the concert, Britten stated that he had conceived of the concerto “with the idea of exploiting various important characteristics of the pianoforte, such as its enormous compass, percussive quality and its suitability for figuration.” That intention is evident from the outset, from the fast and energetic opening movement, a ‘Toccata’ in which the pianist can exhibit his virtuosity and technical baggage. After that, Britten aimed for something “simple and in direct form”: not the traditional tripartite structure of a concerto, but rather four movements that seem more like a suite or divertimento. The ‘Toccata’ was originally followed by a ‘Waltz’, ‘Recitative and Aria’ and a ‘March’. But after the first performances, Britten seemed not to be entirely satisfied with the third movement, and in 1945 he decided to replace it by the current ‘Impromptu’. Of this, he wrote: “For this movement I used only material contemporary with the rest of the composition (namely, the incidental music to the BBC radio play King Arthur) and a few figures from the previously written movement.”
Why Britten replaced the third movement is not entirely certain. Perhaps it had something to do with the criticism in the Musical Times of the work’s satirical undertone: “It is the content that raises doubts concerning the real merit of a work that surely aspires to a higher status than a clever jeu d'esprit. [...] Is the end of the third movement which is rather commonplace in its romanticism meant seriously or is the composer’s tongue still in his cheek as it is during the first part of the movement?” Critics did praise the clear structure and technical construction of the work but they had difficulty with the somewhat eclectic style and the mix of popular elements in a serious genre. The concerto was not performed for many years until, in 1967, Sviatoslav Richter included the work in his concert repertoire. Thanks to proponents of the work such as Leif Ove Andsnes and Steven Osborne, Britten’s Piano Concerto opus 13 has nevertheless become a beloved concert work.
During his lifetime, and long afterwards, the German composer Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) was considered a gifted but quite conservative composer who contributed little that was new to the musical canon. Brahms did indeed stick to traditional forms and harmonic structures, but was able to modernise them subtly from the inside out. And he did so with the deepest respect for the legacy of previous generations of composers like J.S. Bach and Beethoven. It took some time before Brahms dared to measure himself against Beethoven’s symphonic genius. After one of his first encounters with Robert Schumann (1810-1856), the latter proclaimed Brahms heir to the legacy of Beethoven. This placed considerable pressure on him: Brahms was in his forties before he successfully completed his First Symphony in 1876. Immediately after the première, the work was dubbed “Beethoven’s Tenth”. It was followed less than a year later by his Second Symphony, and in 1883 – Brahms when Brahms was 50 – he wrote his Third Symphony as a tribute to his friend and mentor Robert Schumann.
During the next two summer holidays, spent in the Austrian Amps, Brahms worked on a new symphony. In September 1885, he wrote to Hans von Bülow, conductor of the Meiningen Court Orchestra, asking if he would take on the new orchestral work. But he also expressed some reservations: "I am really afraid that it [the Fourth Symphony] tastes like the climate here. The cherries don’t ripen in this place; they are inedible!" But von Bülow was full of praise, and on 25 October 1885, Brahms himself conducted the première. Although some critics called the work too cerebral, the audience found the Fourth Symphony to its taste. A few prominent individuals praised its inventiveness in terms of thematic development. From the first movement, Brahms reveals his mastery by generating musical material for an entire movement out of the first four notes.
The finale, an homage to Bach, is a veritable tour de force. Brahms introduces a Baroque form – the chaconne – as the final movement of a symphony, and within that strictly organised framework, he is able to be eminently creative in his treatment of the melodic and harmonic material. The idea for the finale had come to him several years earlier while playing the chaconne from Bach’s cantata Nach Dir, Herr, verlanget mich. He admitted to Clara Schumann at the time: “If I could picture myself writing, or even conceiving, such a piece, I am certain that the extreme excitement and emotional tension would have driven me mad.” Brahms used a slightly adapted version of Bach’s bass line as the basis for his own chaconne, and crafted the more than 30 variations into a dramatic finale.
- Eduard Hanslick
With its dark undertone, Brahms’ Fourth Symphony is anything but a light work for a relaxing evening out. But anyone who takes the trouble to listen more deeply will be moved both intellectually and emotionally.