by Tom Swift

The initial response [to Symphony No. 4] was surprisingly cool, considering the extent to which the city had lionized [Johannes] Brahms throughout the 1870s and early 1880s. The Fourth was declared ‘un-Brahmsian.’ (At an earlier private performance of a four-hand piano version, the biographer Mx Kalbeck reportedly suggested that the fourth movement be omitted altogether.)

Brahms did not lay a finger on the work. And, sure enough, by the end of the composer’s life the Viennese public had gained a deeper appreciation not only for the Fourth, but for the whole career of symphonic music that it seemed to sum up. A performance of the Fourth in 1897, a month before the composer’s death, indicated the depth of the shift of opinion. Here is Florence May’s description of the emotional evening:

‘A storm of applause broke out at the end of the first movement, not to be quieted until the composer, coming to the front of the artists’ box in which he was seated, showed himself to the audience.

‘An extraordinary scene followed the conclusion of the work. The applauding, shouting audience, its gaze riveted on the figure standing in the balcony, so familiar and yet in present aspect so strange, seemed unable to let him go.

‘Tears ran down his cheeks as he stood there shrunken in form, with lined countenance, a strained expression, white hair handing lank; and through the audience there was a feeling of a stifled sob, for they knew that they were saying farewell.”

-Paul Horsley, “Program Notes,” Playbill, 7-16-2016