JOHANNES BRAHMS: Symphony No. 3 in F major, op. 90

Johannes Brahms was born in Hamburg, Germany, on May 7, 1833, and died in Vienna on April 3, 1897. He completed his Third Symphony during a stay at Wiesbaden in the summer of 1883; the two middle movements may date back to a never-completed “Faust” project on which Brahms was working on in 1880–81. Hans Richter led the Vienna Philharmonic in the first performance of the F major Symphony on December 2, 1883. It was first heard in America at one of Frank Van der Stucken’s “novelty concerts” at New York’s Steinway Hall on October 24, 1884. The Symphony is scored for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, and strings.

By the time Brahms wrote his Third Symphony, he had come to be regarded with great respect, at least by many of the critics and the public, particularly those who saw in him a bulwark of instrumental abstract music against Wagner’s “Music of the Future.” That is not to say that new works were received with universal acclaim. For one thing, Wagner’s partisans were always as vicious in their denunciations of Brahms as the Brahmsians were in their attacks on the Wagnerian faction. And many well-intentioned music lovers simply found Brahms’s elusive, complex music unclear, demanding, and highly intellectual rather than emotional. When the Third Symphony was first performed in Boston in the fall of 1884 (the second performance in the United States), the response was all-too typical: “Like the great mass of the composer’s music,” wrote a critic, “it is painfully dry, deliberate and ungenial; and like that, too, it is free from all effect of seeming spontaneity.”

For the average listener it took decades—and many listenings—to find the extraordinary lyricism, the rapturous interplay of lines and rhythms, which create a complexity that does indeed benefit from the sorting out acquired by familiarity. A hundred years ago it was a commonplace to say that Wagner was the avatar of musical modernism and Brahms of a musical conservatism. And yet the situation should not have been so simply stated, or the music of Brahms would have been much easier to grasp. No less a musical mind than that of Arnold Schoenberg, whose Verklärte Nacht may be the apotheosis of Wagner’s Tristan, also wrote a profound essay entitled “Brahms the Progressive,” in which he drew attention to Brahms’s unsurpassed genius at melodic variation and the complex richness of his rhythms, to which no other composer of his time came close.

It is well known that Brahms waited until he was well into his forties before daring to bring forth his first symphony in 1876, though he claimed to have written and destroyed several before that. But once having broken ground for a symphonic edifice, he quickly moved on to his second such structure the following year. Then he concentrated for a time on concertos (the one for violin and his second for the piano), chamber music (a violin sonata, a piano trio, and a string quintet), and choral works (including the exquisite Nänie, with its classicizing text by Schiller lamenting that “Even Beauty must die”).

Finally, in the summer of 1882 he began his Third Symphony, completing it the following summer. Indeed, so ready was he to give birth to the work that he interrupted a journey on the Rhine and rented lodgings in Wiesbaden so that he could write out the score, which he apparently did without pause. The first performance took place that December in Vienna, where it was well received except for the noisy opposition of a few members of the Wagner-Bruckner camp. In those days, of course, there were neither recordings nor radio broadcasts to carry the sound of a new work beyond the audience that first heard it in the concert hall. Brahms’s friends in other cities—particularly his oldest and dearest friend and confidante, Clara Schumann—were eager to hear the piece. But they did not have to wait long; orchestras all over Europe and even the distant United States performed it in 1884 (before the end of the year performances had taken place in Cambridge, Berlin, Leipzig, Cologne, Meiningen, as well as both New York and Boston.

Brahms had prepared an arrangement for two pianos (in those pre-recording days, most music lovers studied new compositions at home, playing them on the piano, before going to hear them in concert) and twice allowed the powerful Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick to hear the score in a two-piano reading before the official premiere. After the performance, Hanslick hailed the new work as “a feast for the music lover and musician, . . . artistically the most perfect” of the composer’s works to that time.

Naturally Brahms sent a copy of the two-piano score to Clara Schumann, who wrote to him on February eleventh offering her friend an enthusiastic response:

I don’t know where this letter will find you, but I can’t refrain from writing it because my heart is so full. I have spent such happy hours with your wonderful creation . . . that I should like at least to tell you so. What a work! What a [musical] poem! What a harmonious mood pervades the whole! All the movements seem to be of one piece, one beat of the heart, each one a jewel! From start to finish one is wrapped about with the mysterious charm of the woods and forests. I could not tell you which movement I loved most. In the first I was charmed straight away by the gleams of dawning day, as if the rays of the sun were shining through the trees. Everything springs to life, everything breathes good cheer, it is really exquisite! The second is a pure idyll; I can see the worshipers kneeling about the little forest shrine, I hear the babbling brook and the buzz of the insects. There is such a fluttering and a humming all around that one feels oneself snatched up into the joyous web of Nature. The third movement is a pearl, but it is a grey one dipped in a tear of woe, and at the end the modulation is quite wonderful. How gloriously the last movement follows with its passionate upward surge! But one’s beating heart is soon calmed down again for the final transfiguration which begins with such beauty in the development motif that words fail me! How sorry I am that I cannot hear the symphony now that I know it so well and could enjoy it so much better. This is a real sorrow for me. . . .

For all the immediate fame and success that the Symphony achieved (and for all its influence on Brahms’s contemporaries, including Dvořák and the American George W. Chadwick, whose own Third Symphony is in some ways an homage to this piece), the Brahms Third is the least-often programmed of the four symphonies. And this in spite of the fact that Brahms’s great devotee Hans Richter referred to the piece “Brahms’s Eroica.” Actually the epithet could be, in part, the cause of the Symphony’s relative infrequency in performance, because the two works have almost nothing in common except the fact that they are both “third symphonies” and bear the tempo marking “Allegro con brio” for their first movements.

The Beethoven work shatters the past with a two-fisted aggressive outburst of dynamism; the Brahms is altogether quieter, more internalized, more evocative. Every movement ends quietly, including the finale, and this may be another reason why it is heard rarely, since audiences are psychologically more attuned to applaud a loud, brilliant finish rather than the quiet close.

The first, second, and fourth movements of the Symphony are linked by the presence of a “motto” that appears in the opening measures: three chords underlie a three-note melody that consists of F rising to A-flat, then soaring upward to the F in the higher octave. Now in this context, A-flat would suggest that the symphony is to be in F minor, but the chords underlying the first and third pitches have instead an A-natural, which suggests (as indeed the score officially decrees) that the Symphony is in F major. From the first three measures, then, the Symphony unfolds an expressive scheme that is constantly playing with the opposition between major and minor, sometimes forcefully, but most often in delicate ways.

Nearly thirty years earlier Brahms had composed a violin sonata movement based on the musical emblem F–A–F, which, according to the composer’s biographer Kalbeck, stood for the phrase “frei aber froh” (free but happy). Here the same phrase recurs, except its middle member is now A-flat, bringing in a totally different mood. A and A-flat contend dramatically throughout the movement, a harmonic competition that helps to generate the great forward thrust that continues even past the more delicate and ravishing secondary theme, first heard in the clarinet.

The two middle movements are both more delicate and lighter, of the type that Brahms often (though not here) chose to call “intermezzo.” The second movement features a melody that seems almost as simple as a folk song, developed with rich changes in the orchestration. The lyric flow is twice interrupted by a succession of chords that sound vaguely ominous.

The cellos sing a gorgeously poignant melody at the opening of the third movement, and the first violins soon take it up. Though this movement lacks specific references to the continuing struggle between A and A-flat, its mood of overall melancholy fits right in with the nature of that harmonic combat.

The finale opens in F minor, giving the impression that the A-flat will ultimately triumph. A chorale-like passage and a succession of motives build a powerful symphonic struggle. But rather than carrying this through to anything like a heroic conclusion, Brahms draws all of the thematic materials of this movement together in a calm apotheosis that finally settles the original question—minor or major?—in favor of the latter, with shimmering strings and a hushed close. —© Steven Ledbetter