Notions of the tragic have changed greatly since the Golden Age of Attic drama and its posthumous codification by Aristotle. Some have claimed that, in Shakespeare’s wake, what we now call tragedy is something entirely different. A (post-)Christian need for redemption as heard, however equivocally, in Honegger’s Third Symphony seems incompatible with tragedy’s iron rule of Fate. Even Wagner, with the exception of Lohengrin, tended to offer redemption rather than catharsis in the ancient sense. Indeed, minor-mode symphonies that do not turn ‘affirmatively’ to the major are rarer than we might expect. Yet those tragic notions, their representation too, have also remained surprisingly close to their source, of which we still speak, in Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. Would it have seemed strange to ancient writers of tragic drama and verse to speak of symphonies as participating in the tragic and even, in the case of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony, of embodying tragedy itself? Doubtless, but then to them the very notion of a symphony would have seemed equally strange.
New Life to Everlasting Themes
Born out of Paris in January 1945, Honegger’s Symphonie liturgique came to life in the strange atmosphere of French ‘liberation’. The end of war’s tunnel, amidst privation, bitterness and general settling of scores, was yet tantalisingly close. The future might, must be better than the recent past, but there was little reason to think it would be devoid of further pain and even tragedy. As if to symbolize life’s dualities more generally, the Symphony was written during wartime and peacetime, in France and Switzerland, where this singularly atypical member of ‘Les Six’ remained a citizen.
It is not intended for liturgical purposes, but rather takes a subtitle for each of its three movements from lines in the Latin (Roman Catholic) liturgy: ‘Dies irae’ (Day of wrath) from the Requiem; ‘De profundis clamavi ad te’ (Out of the deep have I called unto thee) of Psalm 130, recited prior to burial; and ‘Dona nobis pacem’ (Grant us peace) from the Agnus Dei of the Ordinary of the Mass. Each movement, Honegger said, attempted to express ‘an idea, a thought which I should not wish to call philosophical – that would be pretentious – but which represents the composer’s personal feeling’. His intention, he said, had been ‘to symbolize the reaction of modern man against the morass of barbarism, stupidity, suffering, machine-mindedness and bureaucracy’. Herein was ‘a drama played out between three characters, whether real or symbolic: misery, happiness and man [:] everlasting themes. I have tried to give them new life.’
The idea of the ‘Dies irae’, Honegger thought, would pose no problem to audiences who had all lived through ‘years of war and revolution’. Its dark opening, ‘de profundis’ avant la lettre, scurries and snarls by turn. In diabolical, malevolent grotesquerie, it comes close to Prokofiev’s Third Symphony (and thus his opera The Fiery Angel). A militaristic storm, again like Prokofiev, brimming with melody came, Honegger recalled, ‘suddenly, in its entirety, on the short train journey from Basel to Bern’ and was swiftly notated in draft before retiring to bed that evening. A ferocious energy framing wind intonation of the dread words ‘Dies irae, dies illa’ is the driving force of a movement, like its successors, in sonata form. Here that form proves to be principally exposition and developmental yet ultimately reversed recapitulation, subsiding into the opening darkness.
The prayerful second movement represents the tendency of ‘everything remaining of purity, clarity, and confidence in humanity […] toward that force we feel to be above us’. That might be God, or perhaps something from within, borne by each of us ‘in the most secret part of his soul’. Considerably more ambiguous in ‘message’, not least in the inconclusive climaxes to and from which Honegger builds and retreats, the music seems to float in a state of purgatorial suspension. Early responsorial exchanges between string and wind choirs recall the organ (or even Bruckner). If, to an English ear, there sounds an Elgarian nobility to the lower strings, such correspondence is doubtless mere coincidence. A seraphic flute solo evokes religious iconography of old, in flight above the ruins of modernity.
From its title, we might be a little surprised by the realm of the third movement: not that peace which passes all understanding, but the ‘inescapable rise of stupidity in the world: nationalism, militarism, red tape, administration, customs duties, taxes, wars, everything humanity has invented to persecute and degrade him, to transform him into a robot’. It is that stupidity, however, which has finally provoked ‘the cry of despair: “Dona nobis pacem”’. A goose-stepping march of idiocy, ‘la thème de la c…rie humaine’, gathers pace, forces and followers – ‘mechanical geese’ – over lengthy pedals, erupting in terrible ‘pesante’ cries of revolt from the oppressed. A rapt wind choir sings the closing Adagio, ‘pianissimo sempre e dolce’. Above divided strings, melismatic instrumental solos – flute joined by piccolo, violin and cello – take us to celestial C sharp major for ‘a brief meditation on what life could be: calm, love, joy – a bird’s song, Nature, peace’. And yet, the final chord’s ambiguity – what to make of its added notes? – suggests only a temporary peace. Nagging, gnawing doubt remains.
Tragedy that Brooks No Dissent
Brahms conceived his Fourth Symphony in very different circumstances, on an Alpine holiday in the Styrian village of Mürzzuschlag in 1884 and 1885. ‘It tastes of the climate here’, he wrote to Hans von Bülow, comparing it to the local cherries’ stubborn unwillingness to ripen: ‘you would not eat them!’ Like Beethoven’s works with similar opus numbers, the Symphony stands on the cusp of the composer’s unquestionably ‘late’ period and puzzled certain early listeners, though it has been long since assimilated into the repertoire. Few symphonies speak with a voice and direction so unambiguous in its Classical tragedy: Mozart’s 40th, Mahler’s Sixth, perhaps a handful of others. Brahms’s Fourth it seems, will always stand among them; defiant, unbending, if no longer incomprehensible as it initially seemed to some listeners, Eduard Hanslick and Clara Schumann among them.
The wistfulness of the first theme perhaps suggests the E minor opening of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto. We can sense the melancholy shadows cast by those falling thirds, even when they rise to foretell added sixth harmonies that will colour the entire work. What follows, though, is tighter of structure – no criticism of Mendelssohn, for he and Brahms attempt and accomplish very different things. This was not Brahms’s first musical construction from a chain of falling thirds; the development section of the Finale of his Piano Quartet No. 3 in C minor op. 60 is another example. But to place them first, without introduction, is a further refinement, even declaration of (proto-serial) intent. A recent fashion in Brahms studies has been to emphasize his Romanticism as opposed to a modernist legacy, reflected in replacement of images of the older, bearded composer – forbidding, avuncular, or somewhere in between – with his fresh-faced counterpart. However, an either/or misses the point. This opening could barely stand closer to both Mendelssohn and Webern. This is Brahms’s only symphonic first movement not to repeat the exposition: testament to what Schoenberg would extol as the ‘developing variation’ of ‘Brahms the Progressive’. It is again to Mendelssohn that Brahms stands closest in recapitulating at a point of exhaustion rather than triumph, ‘with all the majesty’, to quote Donald Tovey, ‘of the Norns prophesying the twilight of the Gods’. We move inexorably to Tovey’s ‘grim Amen’. So complete is the sound, we might fancy a larger orchestra were employed; this false tutti is, however, voiced without trombones, held in reserve for the Finale.
The second movement develops likewise by variation. It is heralded by horn calls whose strong hints at C major refer back to intervals and harmonies from the first movement, and forward both to the Phrygian mode of this movement’s close – horns again – and to the Scherzo. Once the home key has been established, the music is warmer, more redemptive, its later ‘sumptuous eight-part string texture’, to quote Malcolm MacDonald, ‘the most gorgeous assertion of the “himmlischer Trost” [heavenly consolation] of E major in Brahms’s output’. The composer of Ein deutsches Requiem and the Vier ernste Gesänge is the most devout of agnostics. Epiphany is enabled by shadows that follow and precede, modal inflections with roots in late Beethoven as well as Brahms’s early-music scholarship.
Brahms’s Scherzo is formidably iron-clad, even for a work so firmly in Beethoven’s tradition. Sonata-form concision both propels and questions the mood of celebration, though certainly not its coiled-spring energy. Intimations of the Finale abound, perhaps only recognized as such in retrospect. Brahms’s celebrated use of the triangle needs no defence, yet received a splendid one from Tovey, who pointed to combination with piccolo and contrabassoon in ‘grotesque poetic aptness to […] bacchanalian fury’.
The idea of the Finale dates back several years. In a conversation around 1880 with Siegfried Ochs and Hans von Bülow, Brahms lamented how little most musicians, then present company included, knew of the treasure trove of Bach’s cantatas. He played on the piano the final movement of Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich (Cantata No. 150), of which he owned a copyist’s manuscript, a gift from Bach biographer Philipp Spitta. Bülow objected that voices would not bring out Bach’s climax with necessary force, at which point Brahms asked, ‘what would you think of a symphonic movement written on this very theme one day?’. It was, however, he admitted, ‘too chunky, too straightforward. One would need somehow to alter it chromatically.’ Brahms thus added a chromatic A sharp – prepared in the first group of the first movement – to the simple theme, heightening tension in transition to the dominant. He also stretched out Bach’s theme to eight bars and had it appear anywhere in the texture, not only in the bass, thereby composing what, Brahms’s own nomenclature notwithstanding, is considered a passacaglia rather than a chaconne.
In immediate departure from Bach, the theme is heard first not in the bass but over a bass line characterized once more by falling thirds. 30 variations ensue, taking us through intervals, tonalities, other musical qualities and relationships new and old. At the beating heart of this world of musical tragedy, invited by the 12th variation’s Orphic flute, sings Harmoniemusik patently longing for a Classical paradise no longer attainable. Trombones solemnly summon the All Souls ‘aequale’ tradition of communion with the dead. The grandeur of the final variation’s ritardando necessitates, like Fate itself, volcanic eruption. And so there is heralded a magnificent ‘Più Allegro’ coda in which, released from passacaglia confinement, music can again freely modulate. The destination to which it storms is never in the slightest of doubt. There is no nagging doubt here. No more than Aeschylus, Sophocles, nor, for all his Christianity, Bach does Brahms in his tragedy brook dissent.
(This essay was originally published to accompany a Salzburg Festival performance by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and Herbert Blomstedt.)