My favorite symphonies are the second, third, and fourth. The second and third are fairly popular, but the fourth is under-appreciated, in my opinion.
Perhaps this is because it is so dark and stark. I readily concede that it is. It may not be everyone's cup of tea, but it is certainly mine. This symphony has been played orders of magnitude more than everything else on my iPod. It is perfect for writing papers -- it keeps my emotions occupied while my brain works on the papers.
One commenter on the YouTube video that I link to for this said:
If there ever was a man foolish enough to say that despair cannot be sublime, by the time this symphony hits 1 minute and 10 seconds he has been proven wrong.Take out the male-exclusive pronouns, and I could not agree more. It is a piece of beauty drawn from despair.
The symphony begins with a slow movement (unusual for a symphony). It starts with a cello/bass/bassoon dirge, and eventually a solo cello rises above. This movement sets the mood for the entire symphony: slow, stark, and dark. More of the orchestra joins in: first the violas, then the second violins, and finally the firsts -- and the volume rises as more instruments join. At the 2:15 mark, when the strings cannot get any louder, the horns and then the trumpets join in. This characterizes the entire movement -- a series of swells of sound, very beautiful, but slow, stark and dark.
Even the second movement, which is in a fast tempo, leads right back into slow, stark, and dark for the third movement (my favorite movement, and the focus of this post). The third movement parallels the beginning of the piece, with sustained cello/bass, but a flute solo to start. The flute passes the melody off to the clarinet, then it goes back to the flute, and the cellos and basses begin to imitate the lines of the flute.
We get a small taste of the melody that will be the climax of the piece when the horns enter at the 1:16 mark, but the first substantial preview is initiated by the violas beginning at about the 2:43 mark. At 4:30 it appears again in a slightly more developed form played by cellos under string tremolo. But it gets interrupted by a reprise of earlier themes. The cellos and basses bring it up again at about 5:32, with a poignant cello solo, and we again get thrown off by reprise of earlier themes. The next time it appears is at the 6:45 mark, and it is a much bigger exposition. At this point we can hear it in depth. It begins at the lowest range of the cellos and rises 6 octaves while swelling to fortissimo, before diving back down to the depths and pianissimo, and returning to the original opening theme.
At the 8:30 mark, we have a major theme under which the climax melody, played by the cellos, serves as accompaniment. Finally, at the ten-minute mark, it is the beginning of the big climax. Violins, viola, and cello play it in unison. The melody rises almost 3 octaves and the volume rises to fortissimo until the highest point is reached, and a swift decrescendo down to almost nothing.
For the remainder of the movement we have a sustained focus on the pitch C-sharp. There is a lot of dissonance and resolution and dissonance again, passing from flute to clarinet to first violin to second violin to cello to pizzicato bass, until everyone ends up on the C sharp and just fades away.
The fourth movement starts at C sharp. It is a necessary semi-resolution of the despair of the third movement, and has some beautiful moments in it, my favorite being the theme that begins at about the 2:48 mark and returns at about the 4:25 mark. In this particular recording, the coda (last part) is interpreted a lot differently than I had ever heard -- extremely slow, but perhaps more like it's intended, as if to say that there's no escape from the stark and dark. Although, if it were all up to me, I wouldn't even be trying to escape.