Brahms: Symphony No.3

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Symphony No.3 in F, Op.90

1. Allegro con brio
2. Andante
3. Poco allegretto
4. Allegro

Like Elgar, Brahms hid a complex personality behind a construct of gruffness, sturdy suits and facial hair. He was immensely self-conscious about his place in musical history, and went to great lengths to make sure that as little as possible of his life became public knowledge. But the crusty image of “Herr Doktor Brahms” belies a life born in grinding poverty. His teenage years were spent playing piano in brothels to make ends meet, where he was subject to abuse of all kinds. He was irrevocably scarred by his early experiences. He felt deeply lonely, yet incapable of allowing himself any great intimacy. He was notorious for his caustic wit and an exasperating combination of misanthropy and self-pity. “I have no friends!” he would often exclaim in later life (to his friends).
By the time he came to write his third symphony, the blue-eyed, handsome youth had long since disappeared beneath the façade. He was held up as the figurehead of the conservative opposition to the revolutionary music of Wagner and his followers. This was not a position he sought or welcomed, despite his reservations about the Wagnerian cult. He remarked acidly on more than one occasion that he understood Wagner’s music far better than any of his most rabid acolytes. But as the pre-eminent composer of symphonies and chamber music in a world dominated by Wagner’s ideas of the “Total Art Work”, he felt himself to be the last of a line.
In 1883 Brahms was about to celebrate his 50th birthday. He was, after Wagner’s death early that year, indisputably the foremost composer in Germanic culture. Not that his mind was entirely focussed on his artistic reputation. He was in the grip of one of his perennial infatuations, in this case a young singer called Hermine Spies. An outpouring of vocal music followed. His decision to take his summer holiday in Wiesbaden rather than his customary destination of Bad Ischl may not have been unconnected with the fact that she was there during that summer. What if anything went on is a matter for conjecture: this is one of those episodes that Brahms was more successful in removing from record. But in a light and airy country house in sight of the Rhine, as luxurious, he claimed, “as if I were trying to imitate Wagner”, he began his third symphony.
Brahms more than almost any other composer resists interpretation, but there are clues as to the influence of extra-musical thoughts. The opening three chords derive from a cipher. His friend and early champion, the violinist Joseph Joachim, had a motto: the notes F-A-E, standing for “Frei aber einsam” [free but lonely]. Brahms rejoined with F-A-F, meaning “Frei aber Froh” [free but happy]. This arresting opening plunges us deep into the current of the Rhine – almost literally, as the main theme is adapted from the Rhenish Symphony of another of Brahms’ friends from his youth, Robert Schumann.
These associations ran deep for Brahms. Both Joachim and Schumann had provided crucial support early in his career. There were less happy memories too. He had fallen out with Joachim three years earlier over the latter’s divorce, and it is perhaps significant that Brahms’s first attempt at a rapprochement would be to ask Joachim to conduct the Berlin premiere of the Third Symphony. Schumann loomed large in Brahms’s life beyond his role as mentor. As the elder composer succumbed to madness and died in an asylum, Brahms fell head over heels in love with his wife, the great pianist Clara Schumann. Whether these feelings were consummated is still a subject of speculation, but she was undoubtedly the great love of his life. The presence of these motifs in the symphony suggest that thoughts of his past must have been present, and to be thinking of his lost friends and lost loves while he was pursuing the young contralto must have been a source of much soul-searching. The overall mood of the opening movement is heroic, but it is heroism undermined by instability: the rhythms and harmonies are in constant flux.
The middle two movements are more subdued and introverted. The second begins restfully enough, but there is a melancholic undertow. The third movement’s exquisitely yearning main theme made it an instant hit at early performances. In those days when no one worried about whether or not to clap between movements, it was often encored.
The finale begins quietly and tensely before erupting. Elements of the previous movements are woven into the design, which seems to be striving towards a heroic conclusion. Brahms often takes a moment in his finales to reflect before he races for an affirmative ending. But on this occasion things take an unexpected turn. The ensuing valediction nods towards Wagner, and reveals the opening theme’s true nature. It would be an unthinkable way to conclude such monumental music had Brahms not done it and made it seem so right.

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