Last Will And Testament
by Benjamin Pomerance
In 1875, a lawyer of modest means won election to the City Council of Vienna. Few people among the affluent city’s ruling class knew the name of Karl Lueger at that seemingly unassuming moment in time. An ardently pious Catholic whose legal work for the city’s destitute residents earned him the nickname of “the little people’s champion,” Lueger seemed like an odd fit for the decadent municipality’s government. To the political insiders, Lueger’s vows about helping the poor and conquering corruption felt like nothing more than boyish pipe dreams.
Yet these assumptions quickly shattered under the political elite’s upturned noses. Lueger’s outspoken promises about seizing power from Vienna’s wealthy liberals and carving out a new era of prosperity and purity dazzled plenty of citizens. Baron Cajetan von Felder, the city’s long-serving mayor, became his primary enemy. At first, the veteran politician simply ignored the verbal attacks of the new kid on the political block, believing that Lueger’s radical speechifying would soon wear it its welcome. It was the worst mistake of von Felder’s career.
Instead of burning out, Lueger’s messages caught fire. Seizing on this populist fervor, the newly minted agitator’s commentaries became even more strident. He announced that non-German-speaking minorities were poaching jobs from “true Viennese citizens,” and called for severe restrictions on immigration from Russia and Romania. The Jews became a particular target of his wrath, claiming in several addresses that Jewish merchants had stolen Vienna’s wealth from its more deserving ethnically pure residents.
And as Lueger’s blistering star rose, Johannes Brahms watched in silent horror. By this point in his life, the venerated composer had seen plenty of unscrupulous politicians come and go, and he had paid little attention to them. But this was something else entirely. To him, the nativist and anti-Semitic gospels that Lueger preached, and the frenzied support that such views received from followers who sought to satisfy an inexplicable bloodlust, seemed like an omen for the downfall of all humanity.
His mood grew dark. His music began to follow suit. In 1882, he crafted Song of the Fates, a composition opening with a terrifying set of lyrics — “Let the race of man/Fear the gods!” — and concluding with an ambiance of outright hopelessness and despair. Still, nobody seemed to notice. The Lueger machine chugged along, gathering more momentum with every passing week.
Then Brahms decided to write a symphony. By itself, this was a newsworthy announcement among Viennese music circles. For many years, Brahms had shied away from the symphonic form entirely, insisting that he could never equal Beethoven’s work. When he finally resolved to write one, the gestation period lasted two decades. But now, just one year removed from completing his Symphony No. 3, Brahms stated that he was already prepared to offer another contribution to this genre. The classical music literati immediately took notice.
Yet nothing could have prepared them for what emerged from Brahms’s pen. In 1885, the composer invited a group of his closest friends to his home, where he played through the entire symphony on his piano. A stunned silence immediately followed the final note. Finally, Eduard Hanslick — arguably the most vocal advocate for Brahms’s music in all of Europe — broke the icy reaction with a joke: “I feel like I’ve just been beaten up by two terribly intelligent people.”
The next day, another friend showed up at Brahms’s house. A vigorous dialogue ensued, with the friend begging Brahms not to release the symphony to the public. But it was too late for that now. Brahms had already booked a concert hall and an orchestra in Meiningen, Germany, for the premiere performance. Aborting the symphony was out of the question. Promising his friend that he would re-evaluate the piece’s future based on the audience’s reaction at the premiere, he pressed forward with the concert.
That night, the audience heard a creation of frighteningly tragic intensity. The symphony begins innocently enough, with an almost-jaunty theme in E minor. Yet the mood quickly turns somber, and then melancholy and elegy-like, and then swells with predatory fierceness. At their core, some of the rhythms hint at becoming waltzes. But these are no celebratory revels. Instead, this work has all the weightiness of a dance to the grave.
Finally, the unrelenting ride arrives at the final movement. Brahms constantly honored his compositional predecessors, imbuing many of his greatest compositions with musical forms that were popular a century earlier. This time, he turned to the chaconne, a structure featuring multiple variations played over a repeating bass line. In this last section of his final symphony, he opened the floodgates of his mastery of this format, adapting a bass line originally written by J.S. Bach and unveiling an extraordinary thirty variations unspooling over this theme.
From a music theory perspective, the accomplishment was a masterpiece. But from an emotional standpoint, Brahms’s chaconne carried an even more extraordinary punch. An overriding sense of impending doom grows tauter and fiercer until it reaches a level of outright inevitability. The tradition of the chaconne held that the bleakness of a minor key should brighten at the end into a satisfying major chord. Yet Brahms rejected that convention here. Instead, he concluded the movement in minor, refusing to grant the listener the expected relief.
In analyzing this work, the author Jan Swafford points out a quotation from conductor Felix Weingartner. “[The finale is] a veritable orgy of destruction,” the maestro wrote. In Beethoven’s final symphony, Weingartner noted, the last movement features an outpouring of glory, a celebration of the triumph of the human spirit. Brahms’s culminating symphonic message produces precisely the opposite effect, ending with the feeling that disaster is inevitable.
And then it came true. In 1895, the citizens of Vienna elected a new mayor: Karl Lueger, by now more reactionary, doctrinaire, and anti-Semitic than ever. On election night, Brahms practically jumped out of his skin with rage. “Didn’t I tell you years ago that it was going to happen?” he seethed to his friends, according to Swafford’s chronicle about the end of Brahms’s life. “You laughed at me back then. Now, it’s here.”
The rest of the story is well-documented by now. Lueger went on to become swollen with power, cultivating a new right-wing political group that he anointed the “Christian Social Party of Austria.” Anti-Semitism, along with other strains of ethnic and racial prejudice, became a fundamental plank in his platform. One can only imagine that Lueger’s influence over Vienna’s culture would have grown even greater were it not for his death from diabetes mellitus in 1910.
Still, the damage had been done. During Lueger’s time in office, a young aspiring artist watched the charismatic mayor’s tactics and marveled at his successes. When the Academy of Fine Arts rejected that young man twice in consecutive years, he angrily left town, moving from Austria to Germany. Not long after that, he discovered that he had a gift for political oratory himself. And before his career was done, Adolf Hitler would declare that Karl Lueger’s views about ethnic minorities provided a guidebook for shaping his own violently intolerant ideas.
By this point, of course, Brahms was gone, passing away only two years after Lueger’s mayoral victory. Yet he left behind a warning as his last symphonic will and testament. In those final foreboding notes, the great composer still forces audiences to consider what happens when a leader uses rhetoric of harsh justice and rampant prejudice to capture the support of an angered citizenry. There are thirty variations in that last movement, but the outcome ultimately remains the same. Now, just as then, the only question is whether people will listen.
The Schenectady Symphony Orchestra performs Brahms’s Symphony No. 4 on April 23 at 3 p.m. on the Proctors Theatre mainstage. For tickets, Proctors Box Office, www.proctors.org or call (518) 346-6204.