Traditionally, the BSO’s Tanglewood season concludes with a performance Beethoven’s Ninth, an overplayed sound-track triggering optimistic images of brotherhood and the profound goodness of the human heart. The mere fact that this became a ritual has drained it of musical significance—which has been replaced by its function as an ambiguous signifier; it has been pulled out to celebrate great occasions, cultural and political movements of all stripes, including by the Nazis.
Brahms’ Fourth must stand with a very small handful of other works at the apex of symphonic composition. It represents the essence of “symphonism,” that is, the use of the fully developed romantic orchestra as a unified, full-throated body expressing a completely coherent and integrated musical discourse, in serious purpose comparable to great works of philosophical thought. It is difficult not to think in philosophical terms when encountering this work, especially as performed by the TMC Orchestra under the hands of nonagenarian Herbert Blomstedt, whose control over the flow of such expansive structures is notable among today’s conductors. Words like “austere,” “severe,” “dark,” and “stern” appear regularly in the literature to warn listeners that they are in for a challenging experience with this symphony. One could add “sustained,” “coherent,” “integrated,” “interconnected,” “deeply moving” and, finally, “tragic.” There are few other symphonies that insist on the minor modality to the bitter end: Haydn’s Symphony no. 49 (“La Passione”), Mahler’s Sixth (“Tragic”), and Vaughan-Williams’ Fourth and Sixth may be the best-known examples, and only Haydn displays the same structural necessity and lack of ambivalence about such a conclusion as Brahms.
Imagine an apocryphal New Yorker magazine cover depicting an evening at the symphony. Onstage sits the pianist, a tall figure in black, motionless at his instrument but for the whir of fingers. The lacquered piano lid conceals a conductor’s head and body, but black arms and a baton poke sideways from it, indicating his presence. The audience is attentive and faces forward. But somewhere near row X, a grey-haired woman lies prostrate on her back, motionless in the aisle. Nobody seems to notice, except for a patron a few rows beyond. His head is turned sideways and one eyeball bulges with amazement and alarm. That eyeball is mine.