For several weeks previously I had been reading about the life of Brahms. At the time of composing his 4th Symphony he was about to enter the last decade or so of his life. His long and deeply felt friendship with the widow of Robert Schumann, Clara, had not developed into anything more and his drive and passion had become increasingly focused upon realising the potential of his music. His drive to compose was so strong that when he eventually ‘retired from composition’ at the age of 57 he was unable to keep to it, writing several acknowledged masterworks during his final years.
Overall, the impression I was gaining of Brahms was of a man of great passion, integrity and resolve.
As I listened to his 4th Symphony my newly acquired knowledge of Brahms’s life intertwined with his music and for the first time in my life I ‘got it’. I could hear the heart felt resolve and integrity of the man in his music, and also something of the disappointments that he had overcome. Indeed, these disappointments were the wellspring of the symphony’s emotional intensity.
In the past I had perceived Brahms as too tightly buttoned up by classical structures and forms to be truly expressive and emotional. Now, however, I understood that he used the structures not just for aesthetic reasons but also because they enabled him to articulate his emotions in a clear, focused and controlled way. I finally put the character of the man beside his music and it all made immediate sense. I became instantly aware of the emotional intensity he had packed so skilfully and carefully into his compositions.
Sometimes we cannot take a convenient short cut towards understanding something. Now and then we simply need to allow ourselves the time and space for our understanding to grow, as it finally did for me and my appreciation of Brahms's symphony.