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A journey through Brahms

The complicated history of the legendary symphonic cycle

Robert Murray


Watch an interview with Daniel Barenboim. Image: Holger Kettner
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Watch an interview with Daniel Barenboim. Image: Holger Kettner

The music of Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) is justly beloved for its ardent emotion, intellectual rigour and craggy beauty. With one eye on the past and one on the future, Brahms carved out a unique place, creating music that combines precision and passion—music that speaks to our hearts and our minds.

At the peak of Brahms’ achievements are his four symphonies, each a self-contained world of feeling. The symphony is the grandest of musical statements and Brahms’ certainly deliver big moments, but they’re also an intimate glimpse into his complicated soul. While staples of the orchestral repertoire individually, a complete cycle of the Brahms’ symphonies is a rare event. When performed by the Staatskapelle Berlin and Daniel Barenboim, it is a once in a lifetime experience.

Barenboim and the Staatskapelle at the Berliner Philharmonie. Image: Holger Kettner
Barenboim and the Staatskapelle at the Berliner Philharmonie. Image: Holger Kettner
Barenboim and the Staatskapelle in Tokyo. Image: Monika Rittershaus
Barenboim and the Staatskapelle in Tokyo. Image: Monika Rittershaus

The historic Staatskapelle, one of Germany’s grandest orchestras

One of the world’s finest orchestras, the Staatskapelle (schtahts kah-PELL-uh) Berlin is also one of its oldest, founded in 1570. During its momentous history it has been the court orchestra of Frederick the Great, employed one of JS Bach’s sons, and given the Berlin premiere of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman conducted by the composer. In addition to its renowned orchestral performances, the Staatskapelle accompanies the opera and ballet performances of the Staatsoper and has been conducted by Felix Mendelssohn and Richard Strauss among many other luminaries.

The orchestra’s darkly gleaming sonority and consummate virtuosity are renowned, particularly in the expressive heart of the Romantic repertoire: Beethoven, Brahms, and Bruckner. Under the direction of Daniel Barenboim, their leader for two decades, the Staatskapelle capture every nuance and colour of everything they play. Audiences around the world have been astonished by the orchestra’s ability to convey the essence of the music. Now, it’s our turn.

Barenboim and the Staatskapelle at Carnegie Hall, New York. Image: Monika Rittershaus
Barenboim and the Staatskapelle at Carnegie Hall, New York. Image: Monika Rittershaus

Daniel Barenboim

Daniel Barenboim is, quite simply, a legendary musician: a pianist of genius, a revered conductor and a champion for peace. His first career – as a concert pianist – began in the 1950s, with a series of sensational debuts at London’s Wigmore Hall, concerto debuts in Paris and with the New York Philharmonic. His many acclaimed recordings attest to Barenboim’s immense musicality, intelligence and rapport with his colleagues including his late wife, cellist Jacqueline du Pré.

Barenboim has been a conductor since the 1960s. He quickly forged relationships with the world’s greatest orchestras: the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic and, of course, the Staatskapelle Berlin, which named him Chief Conductor for Life in 2000.

A chance encounter with the Palestinian-American writer Edward Said led Barenboim to establish the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra and educational initiatives, dedicated to the peaceful resolution of the Middle East conflict through dialogue and cultural exchange. Barenboim demonstrates that music is a vital, life-saving force.

Barenboim and the Staatskapelle in Tokyo. Image: Monika Rittershaus
Barenboim and the Staatskapelle in Tokyo. Image: Monika Rittershaus

The story of Brahms’ First Symphony

Concert One: Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op.68, Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op.73

It took 14 years for Brahms to finish his First Symphony. There was an expectation that Brahms assume the mantle of his hero Beethoven as the spiritual heir of the symphony. What Brahms produced was both grandly public and deeply personal; as Leonard Bernstein notes, “What revelation, what a self-revelation in these opening bars of Brahms' First symphony!” It begins with an implacable drum beat and a distraught melody and ends with an exultant ode to joy that’s a homage – and a challenge – to Beethoven’s legacy.

Brahms’ symphonies often journey inward. The second movement of his otherwise sunny Second Symphony is so intimate that it feels like we’re eavesdropping on his most private thoughts. The world intrudes, with folk-dances and a pulse-raising finale.   

Passion and order: Brahms’ Third Symphony

Concert Two: Symphony No.3 in F major, Op.90, Symphony No.4 in E minor, Op.98

The vivid contrasts of Brahms’ Third Symphony illustrate the conflict of passion and order. In this case, the forceful sweep of its opening moments gives way to a delicate, nostalgic waltz. Brahms embroiders the whole symphony with a motif symbolising the motto that the life-long bachelor had adopted: “Free, but happy”. But perhaps it wasn’t this simple; the sighing lyricism of the third movement radiates longing, but passion turns to peace in the symphony’s mysterious final pages.

Brahms’ Fourth might be the greatest of all symphonies. Dazzling in its intricate construction and devastating in its emotional impact, it is the musical equivalent of a Shakespearean tragedy: epic, fatalistic and utterly compelling. Brahms unleashes all the light and shade of orchestral colour across the symphony, climaxing in a set of variations that displays the full might of a virtuoso orchestra.

Unfinished and heroic: Schubert’s ‘Unfinished’ and Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’

Concert 3: Schubert’s Symphony No.8 in B minor, D. 759 ‘Unfinished’, Beethoven’s Symphony No.3 in E-flat major, Op.55 Eroica

Schubert left only a fragment of his B-minor symphony and yet those two movements are one of the most beloved and haunting of orchestral works in the repertoire. An encounter with illness and mortality seems to have unleashed some of Schubert’s most unflinchingly direct and potent music. From the plaintive, ghostly opening to the unfathomable maze of its harmony, this symphony gestures towards eternity. While this symphony is ‘unfinished’, it is far from incomplete.

Unlike Schubert’s ghostly fade-in, Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony begins with the kind of bang that ushers in a revolution. Radical in its musical language and unprecedented in scale, Beethoven inspires the listener to enlist in his musical coup d’etat. Beethoven famously withdrew the dedication to Napoleon Bonaparte, but the true heroes of this symphony are humanity, and, in the ecstatic final movement the world-changing power of music itself.

Daniel Barenboim. Image: Holger Kettner
Daniel Barenboim. Image: Holger Kettner

A rundown of Brahms’ symphonies

Symphony No.1 in C minor: Brahms’ First stands on the shoulders of giants – Beethoven’s nine symphonies. Daunted by this example, Brahms spent 14 years completing a symphony that nods to the past but moves beyond it in richness and drama. Tracing a heroic journey from darkness to light, Brahms caps the symphony with his own ode to joy.

Symphony No.2 in D major: Dispelling the storm clouds of his First Symphony, Brahms’ Second is his ‘pastoral’ symphony. At its heart is a slow movement of rapt beauty, a full-throated song of ever-increasing majesty, almost disturbing in its intensity. Balance is restored by a gentle folk dance and a thrilling finale.

Symphony No.3 in F major: Brahms continues to explore the conflict of passion and order in his Third Symphony, which grips us from its first powerful gesture. He strikes an even more personal note, embroidering this lyrical work with his musical motto: ‘free but happy’. Passion turns to peace in the symphony’s tranquil final pages.

Symphony No.4 in E minor: Few works come close to this towering achievement, the perfect meeting of thought and feeling, and the distillation of Brahms’ mastery of the symphony. Unfurling restlessly from its volatile first movement, the Fourth passes through autumnal melancholy, and explosive joy. The finale is an ever-evolving set of variations each more majestic than the last.

Unfinished and heroic 

SCHUBERT Symphony No.8 in B minor: The perfect fragment of Schubert’s B-minor Symphony haunts us with its uncanny emotional directness and shadowy, ambivalent harmonies. We don’t know why Schubert set this masterpiece aside, but although it is ‘unfinished’ it is far from incomplete.

BEETHOVEN Symphony No.3 in E-flat major: Unprecedented in scope and force, Beethoven’s Eroica is one of the most electrifying symphonies in the repertoire: a parade of dynamic, dramatic moments, funeral marches and a final life-affirming outpouring of joy. The true hero of the piece isn’t Bonaparte or Beethoven – it is all of humanity.  

Secure your seats to see Daniel Barenboim conducting the Staatskapelle Berlin in the Concert Hall with three historic programmes: Sunday 25, Monday 26 and Tuesday 27 November 2018. 

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