"The Four Symphonies"
1000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die
Johannes Brahms was to classical music what LeBron James was to basketball. Just like James was being compared to Michael Jordan while he was still in high school, Brahms was touted as being the heir to Beethoven's mantle...the King of classical. The composer didn't appreciate the comparisons, and why should he? As complimentary as it may seem, that's a heck of a lot of pressure. Beethoven was (and is) largely hailed as the greatest mind in the history of music, and Brahms, born six years following the former's death, was just expected to take over that role? That aspect of his prospects explains plenty about the crafting of his four symphonies.
The first feature it explains is his pace. Beethoven wrote nine symphonies during his lifetime, and Brahms only four. Symphony No. 1 in C Minor took the composer 21 years to complete. He debuted his second, Symphony No. 2 in D Major a little more than a year later. The painstaking process behind the first is attributed to the pressure he felt from those behind the Beethoven comparisons, and trying to ensure that everything was picture perfect.
So of course, when No. 1 debuted, everyone compared it to Beethoven's Ninth. And when Brahms debuted the more lighthearted No. 2, critics compared it to Beethoven's Sixth. Brahms could not win. Admittedly, the composer was rather conservative in style, which might explain why he stuck to his/Beethoven's guns when composing his symphonies, versus experimenting similar to his contemporary and "rival," Richard Wagner.
There's something of an "Old Hollywood" charm when listening to Brahms' first two symphonies…something of a fairy tale in nature. The dark undertones of No. 1 play like the scary forest of Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs, and the cheery flute theme from the opening Allegro of No. 2 resonates of Little Red Riding Hood walking through the woods (pre-wolf of course). The seeming familiarity of the music — and my less-than-thorough of classical music — kind of make these opening symphonies a touch boring to me (although I encourage more competent readers to tell me why I'm wrong in the comments section).
Brahms' Symphony No. 4 amps up the experimentation however. The second movement, Andante Moderato, features horns in the Phrygian mode, lending an Eastern European air. Most curious, in a pleasing way, is the use of the triangle for flair during the Allegro Giocoso. It invited me to bob my head, a sensation rare in classical music from any composer.
My girlfriend, far more knowledgable on the subject than I, tells me that Brahms is a safe choice for more conservative fans of the form. For the most part, his symphonies lead me to agree. The problem for me is that the beauty here most likely lies in its subtleties, which are beyond what my poor ear can catch.
INTERESTING FACT: Brahms' pal Joseph Joachim used the motto "frei aber einsam" (free but lonely). Brahms was 50 and single when Symphony no. 3 debuted, and he incorporated a motto of the notes F-A-F throughout. The acronym stood for "frei aber froh," or "free but happy."