Three Sonatas and a Passacaglia; Brahms and the Symphonic Finale

Brahms allows the gypsy caravan on stage for the finales of his Piano Quartet, op. 25, Violin Concerto, op.77, and Double Concerto, op. 102.  But in his symphonic finales, Romany is no longer spoken.  Why? Even Beethoven has “folk music” (it’s actually spurious. All the better! Mussorgsky took the same theme) in the finale of one of his op. 59 quartets, if not a symphony.  Mendelssohn allows a saltarello  as a symphonic finale.  And Haydn and Dvorak are perfectly willing to have folk style music in many finales, including those in the symphonic sphere.

Well, in Brahms’ case, it’s because of that pock-marked Rheinlander with the flemish name who changed everything.  There really is post-Beethoven performance anxiety when it comes to the symphony, and especially the finale.  The folk finale, after Beethoven, can be seen not only as a nationalistic expression, but also as an evasion.  Some commentators think the slow movement finale is an evasion, as well.  Brahms is in effect is tacitly conceding that the symphony is a more serious genre than the concerto or chamber music.  If this was true for Brahms, by the way, it ceases to be true in the twentieth century, where central European composers (Bartok, especially) make of concerto and chamber genres something like the definitive statement that the symphony had been for the late Romantics.  The earlier Romantics are all about piano music, which puts the individual first, and vocal genres which project texts which can most easily be used to convey extra-musical and acutely personal concepts.  That is the reason why Chopin, Liszt, the early Schumann, and Berlioz are more “advanced” than Brahms or Tchaikovsky, whose paradigmic ways of thinking were essentially symphonic or balletic, respectively.  I know there are exceptions in their repertories, if I may anticipate a rejoinder.  I’m saying, essentially.  When I play Tchaikovsky’s piano music, I often feel like I’m playing a ballet score.  Likewise, the Brahms piano sonatas feel like symphonies.  For some, Brahms may have been most personal when he was least symphonic, in his late piano pieces.  But that’s a different subject.

So Brahms has three sonatas and a passacaglia to conclude his symphonies.  The First and Third are in the heroic mode; the First with an Intro modelled on Beethoven’s Ninth, and the Third with an acutely poignant epillogue, a sort of personal twilight that is so striking because such confessional music Brahms usually puts in piano, song, or chamber music, rather than the symphony.  The Second feels like a gloss on Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro overture, transformed by the trombones at the end into a Beethoven-like catharsis.  And the Fourth, in keeping with the overall severity of the work (excluding, of course, the jolly Scherzo) has a passacaglia simultaneously derived from works by Bach and Beethoven.  Brahms, then, went to great lengths to solve the problem of the post-Beethovenian symphonic finale, which may be part of the reason he has only four symphonies.  He has only three published quartets, as well…does this mean Brahms felt a special responsibility to those genres in which Beethoven particularly excelled? Yes.