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Program Notes: Brahms' Fourth Symphony

Updated: Apr 29, 2020

Friday, November 15, 2019 at 10:30AM

Saturday, November 16, 2019 at 8:00PM

Gil Shaham, violin

AARON JAY KERNIS Venit Illuminatio (Toward the Illumination of Colored Light) (World Premiere, SLSO Commission)

BARTÓK Violin Concerto No. 2

Brahms Symphony No. 4 in E minor, op. 98



Born January 16, 1960, Bensalem Township, Pennsylvania

Photo of composer Aaron Jay Kernis
Aaron Jay Kernis

Venit Illuminatio

(Toward the Illumination of Colored Light)

“The Language I Speak”

“[M]usic should contain everything at the same time,” composer Aaron Kernis has said. His formative musical experiences were from college radio—inhaling 1920s jazz, minimalism, Irish folk music, 1950s rock and roll, disco—and his music reflects the variety of this experience.

Kernis first shone in his early twenties, when the New York Philharmonic played an early work, and he has since become one of America’s most lauded composers. He is a winner of the Grawemeyer Award and the Pulitzer Prize, and his music is performed coast to coast.

Many of his works draw from non-musical inspiration: an image, an event, a literary work. Early in Kernis’ career it was the darkness of war and the Holocaust, later it was the deep meaning of his Jewish faith and love for his family.

There are constants in Kernis’ music: expressive melodies, lush harmonies, attentiveness to orchestral color and to the emotional impact of music. Kernis thinks of himself primarily as a communicator. “Music is the language I speak [to audiences],” he says.

In fact, Kernis sings throughout his creative process. He strives “to create the long line through singing, through breathing; that’s the starting place. I think it came from very formative experiences as a choral singer and the first [voice] lessons I ever had as a child.”

If his work speaks directly to listeners, it is very challenging for performers. Kernis is not afraid to push instrumentalists right to the technical edge. One performer calls his writing “virtuosic…but not awkward.”

The Music

The Latin title of this new work can act as a guide: Venit, meaning “coming”; Illuminatio, meaning “spiritual enlightenment” or “brightness.” Coming to enlightenment. Coming towards the light.

The composer writes:

Music for me is something magical. It goes beyond words into places where chords and sounds take the place of language and punctuation.

I am always thinking about the transformation and exchange of emotions and musical ideas and the creation of a wide range of orchestral colors deployed through this large group of brilliant musicians.

With this work I was trying to leave dark thoughts and conflicted emotions behind and find a transformative experience of ecstasy and light. Not just white light of inspiration, but the colored light of change and imagination.

The music of Venit Illuminatio is not one thing, speed, or idea. It traverses many things that shift constantly. Melodic shapes and particular chords are repeated over and over into different guises and characters, always in new contexts and with new meanings.

Sometimes, if I’m very lucky, I will come upon a compositional moment where a chord or an instrumental idea will burst out inside my head as color, or even in heightened Technicolor! Hence its place in the subtitle of this piece, Toward the Illumination of Colored Light.

First performance This weekend’s concerts

Scoring 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 3 oboes (3rd doubling English horn), 3 clarinets

(2nd doubling E-flat clarinet, 3rd doubling bass clarinet), 3 bassoons (3rd doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, bongos, chimes, congas, crash cymbal, crotales, glockenspiel, 3 gongs, 5 unpitched resonant pieces of metal, 3 nipple gongs, snare drum, 3 large suspended cymbals, 3 tam tams, tenor drum, 2 tom toms, triangle, vibraphone, xylophone), harp, celesta, strings

Performance time Approximately 14 minutes



Born March 25, 1881, Sânnicolau Mare, Romania

Died September 26, 1945, New York, New York

Photo of composer Béla Bartók
Béla Bartók

Violin Concerto No. 2

In 1937, storm clouds gathered across Europe. The growing popularity of pro-Nazi political parties, along with economic dependence on Germany, left Bartók’s Hungary vulnerable.

In this climate, Béla Bartók felt powerless. He was disgusted by Hitler and the Nazis, calling them “bandits and assassins,” but felt he could not leave his aging mother in Hungary. “In the last years of her life,” he wrote, “to abandon her forever—no, this I cannot bring myself to do!”

At this chilly moment, Bartók wrote one of his most lush works, the Second Violin Concerto.


For Bartók, the violin had a specific, personal meaning. As a young man, he fell madly for the violinist Stefi Geyer. He wrote several pieces for Geyer, including an early violin concerto, and even after the love affair faded he found himself returning to her instrument, again and again.

Bartók could write for his own instrument, the piano, with bluntness and brutality. But when approaching the violin, he seemed caught in a very different world: hyper-expressive, love-soaked. Indeed, the Second Violin Concerto’s soloist pushes deep into the violin’s strings, sometimes with ragged violence, sometimes with unbridled passion.


When he wrote the Second Violin Concerto, Bartók was spending ten hours each day on folk music studies.

He had first felt called as a young man to gather the folksongs of forgotten people in Eastern Europe’s towns and villages. As he transitioned from amateur folklorist to scientific investigator, this music leeched into his own: its rhythms and shapes, its emotions, its un-smoothed quirks.

The opening of the Violin Concerto is marked “Tempo di Verbunkos.” Verbunkos began as army recruiting music—officers would perform dances with an ensemble—and it could be wild or sentimental.

In the opening bars, Bartók echoes the sound of a verbunkos ensemble: harp (mimicking the Hungarian cimbalom), strings, clarinet. The violin soloist sings with a raw, throaty intensity, and even gives a tiny, verbunkos-like musical hiccup.


Zoltán Székely was a talented young violinist and friend of Bartók’s. Listening now to recordings of Székely’s playing, we can understand why he asked Bartók to write him a “traditional” concerto. His musicianship is refined, controlled, technically immaculate.

Bartók was resistant, feeling driven to experiment. The resulting concerto walks a middle-way: it has the show-off-y-ness, grand scale, and three movements of a traditional work; but Bartók also dives deeply into an experiment with variation form.

The first movement is a dramatic stand-off between simpler, folk-inspired melodies and a more angular, modern world. The third movement is a variation on the first: exploring its gestures and ideas, but with the dial turned up, leaning wild and whimsical.

The middle movement is a set of theme and variations. A tranquil theme goes on a journey through unexpected terrain: foreboding, dangerous, playful, wistful. When it returns, the theme has been changed: low instruments have withdrawn; solitary woodwinds and wisps of strings circle mournfully above.

The Violin Concerto would be among the last works Bartók would complete before leaving his beloved homeland. Bartók knew he was leaving his community, leaving his heartland. He suspected life would not be happy in the distant land of America.

Sadly, he was correct.

First performance March 23, 1939, in Amsterdam Willem Mengelberg conducting the Concertgebouw Orchestra, with Zoltán Székely as soloist

First SLSO Performance November 18, 1949, Vladimir Golschmann conducting, with Tossy Spivakovsky as soloist

Most recent SLSO performance April 9, 2006, David Robertson conducting, with Leonidas Kavakos as soloist

Scoring solo violin, 2 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes (2nd doubling English horn),

2 clarinets (2nd doubling bass clarinet), 2 bassoons (2nd doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, suspended cymbal, tam tam, triangle), harp, celesta, strings

Performance time Approximately 36 minutes



Born May 7, 1833, Hamburg, Germany

Died April 3, 1897, Vienna, Austria

Photo of composer Johannes Brahms
Johannes Brahms

Symphony No. 4 in E minor, op. 98

Most musicians agree: Brahms’ Fourth Symphony is a central, titanic work in the classical repertoire. It is performed hundreds of times each year across the world.

And yet. The music of this symphony is stern, bleak—early audiences found it complex, distancing. A first-time listener can feel caught in conversation with a dazzling intellectual: the experience might be compelling, but also mysterious, occasionally frustrating.

What draws us to this piece? And what made Brahms write such a beautiful, baffling work?

Fuego y Cristal

Brahms’ music holds us in its thrall by balancing heart and head. Writer Jorge Luis Borges called this balance “Fuego y cristal” (Fire and crystal).

Take the symphony’s opening. There is heart: A violin melody undulates, unfolding like a pure stream of emotion. But it is always ruled by head: Brahms has fixed these notes in place according to a strict pattern.

When Brahms first played the first movement of the Fourth Symphony for friends, they didn’t understand it at all. “During the whole first movement,” one wrote later to Brahms, “I felt as if I were being beaten by two very smart people.”

But fastidious technical craft was more than just personal for Brahms. It was political. He observed a musical world where technical standards were slipping. And he fought back, not with words but with music that was unimpeachable—built on painstakingly-laid foundations.

Insect to a Flame

By any measure, the fifty-something Brahms was a success. Raised in a humble home, largely self-taught, ambition had pulled him to Vienna, where he fast became one of the city’s musical stars, working as a conductor, pianist, and composer.

The Fourth Symphony was written during two quiet, productive summers in Mürzzuschlag, a sleepy town in the Austrian Alps. Brahms had no financial need to write the symphony: his modest life as a bachelor, combined with long tours and lucrative fees on the sales of his compositions, had made him wealthy.

An internal force drove him. For Brahms, the symphony was the ultimate musical form, and Beethoven the ultimate composer. Beethoven’s example drew him like an insect to a flame: Brahms knew that writing symphonies would cause stress, would take years off his life, but he could not stop himself from the stretch, the struggle.

Sour Cherries

As he sat in front of the unfinished score of his Fourth Symphony, Brahms realized something. The music of the symphony “tastes of the climate here,” he wrote. “The cherries are tart—you wouldn’t eat them!”

Brahms knew about tartness. In public he could be blunt and charmless, and according to one contemporary his speech was “curt, abrupt, vigorously rapping out his words, allusive rather than explanatory.”

The music of this symphony has something of Brahms’ own character: austere, stern, bleak, hollering instead of singing, stumbling instead of dancing. It is allusive, preferring hint and suggestion to unambiguous statement. And it rarely relaxes into the warmth of a smile.

The first movement sighs and storms, while the slow movement begins with a plaintive cry in something akin to the Phrygian mode—a sort of darkened minor scale. Brahms thought this mode expressed “profound need and remorse.”

The third movement, in bright C major, glitters with a metallic harshness that blinds. High winds and ringing percussion assault our senses.

Finale Problem

As symphonies grew in size and scope, composers worried increasingly about how to end them. A finale had to do everything: sum up, give unity, provide closure, set pulses racing.

Brahms solved his fourth movement problem by looking to the past. He was a passionate music historian long before such a thing was common, filling his shelves with Bach and Mozart, pouring their techniques and ideas into his music.

It was the Chaconne from Bach’s Partita in D minor for solo violin that came into Brahms’ mind. Its form, he wrote, could inspire “a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings.”

The chaconne has its origins as a stately dance. When composers started playing with the form, the dance faded. What remained was a bass line, repeated over and over, with colors and shapes shifting above.

Brahms’ fourth movement is a chaconne, using the form to create an entire world of musical experience. At the opening, brass and winds are hard, granite. Strings wrap them in rich velvet, and later a flute wavers with a lonely song, before trombones emerge quietly from the underworld.

The conclusion goes off like a rocket. “[H]ow it thunders!” wrote Brahms.

First performance October 25, 1885, in Meiningen, Germany, the composer conducting

First SLSO Performance November 15, 1912, Max Zach conducting

Most recent SLSO performance February 26, 2012, Jaap van Zweden conducting

Scoring 2 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, triangle, strings

Performance time Approximately 39 minutes


Program Notes byTim Munro, the SLSO's Creative Partner.


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