Johannes Brahms ‘Symphony No. 3’: A Musical Memory

Good afternoon readers, happy Sunday! After finishing my reading 2 hours ahead of my schedule for the day, I’ve decided to indulge and write another blog. This is a celebratory blog as well as it’s my 80th (yes 80th!) on classicalexburns! So that’s 80 different works by 79 composers! To join this brilliant collection of composers and works I will be writing about Romantic composer Johannes Brahms and his Symphony No. 3. Sit back, relax and enjoy this Romantic rollercoaster.

Johannes Brahms was born in Hamburg, 1833, into a Lutheran family. His father pursued a career in music, working as a wind and string player. After a lot of time trying to find the perfect music job, Johann Jakob Brahms settled as a double-bass player in the Hamburg Stadttheater and the Hamburg Philharmonic Society. Brahms was the second child out of three to be born, and his younger brother, Fritz also became a musician, playing and teaching as a pianist. Johann Jakob gave his son his first dose of musical training, where Brahms learnt to play the violin and cello. From 1840 (at about 6-7 years old), Brahms then took up piano with Otto Friedrich Willibald Cossel. Whilst learning the piano (and being brilliant as a concert performer), Brahms also began composing music. By age 10 he had composed his Piano Sonata in G minor. 

Between the years 1845-1848, Brahms studied with Eduard Marxsen (who also happened to be Cossel’s tutor. Marxsen had very traditional ways of teaching, ensuring that Brahms followed in the footsteps of the ‘greats’ – Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, Schubert and Bach. After giving a wealth of recitals on piano, Brahms was entered into the more professional world of classical music. He was introduced to the ‘gipsy-style’ of music and this built a foundation for him to compose some of his most popular and lucrative works: Hungarian Dances (1869 and 1880). During 1850, Brahms made contact with composer Robert Schumann, and Brahms even sent Schumann some of his compositions by post, but alas it was returned, unopened.

After a decade of performing, composing and meeting lots of big names in the industry, Brahms met the likes of Liszt, Cornelius and Raff. With an attempt to bring together Brahms and Schumann, Raff provided Brahms with a letter of both recommendation and introduction to Schumann. In 1853, Brahms travelled to Düsseldorf to meet Robert and Clara Schumann, where he was warmly welcomed. Schumann was very impressed by Brahms’ talent. 1854 saw a turbulent year for Schumann he as attempted suicide, and was then confined in a mental hospital in Bonn. Brahms then based himself in Düsseldorf and supported the Schumann family, and after Robert’s death, Brahms and Clara Schumann remained very close until her death. Brahms also dedicated his Op. 9 Variations on a Theme of Schumann (1854), to Clara.

Between 1856-1860, Brahms felt some setbacks in his professional career. The premiere of Piano Concerto No. 1 was poorly received and came as a double-blow to Brahms as he was also the soloist at the premiere. This backlash also meant that publishing his works would become a difficult task, so he began building relationships with other publishing companies. Brahms also began engaging in public musical polemics, which saw him come into a bit of bother. In 1860 he debated on the future of German music, and the backlash from this was very large and unsavoury. Together with Raff, Brahms and others attacked Liszt’s followers, what the called the “New German School”. The main arguments surrounded traditionalism, nationality and musicianship. Interestingly, Brahms was sympathetic to their leader, Richard Wagner. After the draft of this was leaked, Brahms was all over the news and subsequently never got involved in that kind of public display anymore.

Vienna was a hot-spot for music in the mid-1860s, and Brahms first made a trip there in 1862. He held a number of musical director positions in and around Vienna and between 1872-1875, he was director of the concerts of the Vienna Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde. The University of Cambridge offered Brahms an honorary doctorate of music in 1877, but interestingly, Brahms refused this. Throughout his life, Brahms was a very active composer, even whilst travelling and collaborating with other composers. He became friends with Johann Strauss II and Dvořák and worked with them on concerts.

By 1890, Brahms had come to the conclusion that he would stop composing, however this didn’t happen and ironically he composed some his most famous works. He composed several piano cycles (including his Lullabies) during the lead up to his death. In 1896 he developed pancreatic (though it has been researched that it may have been the liver) cancer. During March 1897, Brahms made his final public appearance where he conducted his Symphony No. 4. He died a month later on 3 April 1897, aged 63.

Brahms’ legacy has lived on very vividly since his death, and it is down partly to his sheer contribution to a menagerie of different types of works. He wrote a number of major works for orchestra, which include serenades, symphonies and concertos. He also composed choral works, with perhaps his most famous being A German Requiem. As well as this, Brahms also composed chamber works such as string quintets/sextets, clarinet trio, horn trio, piano quintets and piano sonatas and ballades (the full list is incredibly lengthy!). Throughout his professional career as a composer, Brahms maintained a classical sense of form and order in his works, this made his fans see him a champion of traditional forms and “pure music” (whatever that actually means!).

Brahms had a difficult life at times, and it was a lot to do with his perfectionism. He destroyed a lot of his early works as they were not up to his standards, which means only the later works have been officially published. He, like his contemporaries, was very fond of nature and often went into the forests in Vienna to compose. He was reportedly very kind to children, with him always carrying sweets with him so he could give them to children. However to adults, Brahms was often abrupt and sarcastic and often alienated himself (which explains why he never married, although he nearly did once). I’d like to share a really lovely quote from one his students, Gustav Jenner, who wrote:

“Brahms has acquired, not without reason, the reputation for being a grump, even though few could also be as lovable as he.”

He was a man of habit, always visiting the same pub in Vienna every day, always walking with his hands behind his back. His circle of friends were very loyal to him and he repaid them in respect, loyalty and generosity. He was supposedly a rather rich man, although he lived a simple life and gave a lot to others, especially his music students and friends. In any kind of picture you see of Brahms his beard is one thing that is pertinent, and he was often the butt of jokes due to his scruffy beard and clothes and the fact that he barely wore socks. Brahms in general is a very intriguing fellow and his music is battling between modernism and traditionalism, which makes it even more exciting.

Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 was composed in the summer of 1883 in Wiesbaden, which was about 6-7 years after he had completed his Symphony No. 2. It was premiered on December 2nd, 1883 by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, directed by Hans Richter. At the time of the premiere, this work was actually seen as ‘contemporary’ (by that I mean not traditional), so both the orchestra and audience found it a difficult work to digest. It’s bizarre to think that this work was seen as ‘modernist’, because now it’s quite quintessentially Romantic. Brahms composed his works so that they could stand in stead with Beethoven’s and his way of thinking certainly developed to achieve this.

Symphony No. 3 is the shortest of the four symphonic works that Brahms composed. The organic qualities of this work is thus more emphasised due to the compressed time of the work. The work is reflective and even pensive at times, with the musical quotation of the motto Frei aber froh (“Free but Happy”). This is Brahms’ response to Raff’s Frei aber einsam (“Free by Lonely”). You can hear this motif in bars when the sequence F-A-F is played. The symphony is mapped out into four movements:

1. Allegro con brio (F Major)

2. Andante (C Major)

3. Poco allegretto (C minor)

4. Allegro – Un poco sostenuto (F minor – F Major) 

The four movements display various moods and atmosphere’s, which are intensified due to the compactness of the symphony. The ending is a topic of discussion as it breaks away from common convention ever so slightly – which we will discuss in due time. There is a growing-fascination within this symphony and each movement seems to aim to relieve this fascination, but alas we are left unanswered at the end – which I find most exciting. One more thing to look out for is the ending of the movements. All four movements end quietly – which is very a very subtle trick, by its perhaps one of the most pertinent for me. I cannot even name another large-scale orchestral work that does this. Some of the most powerful moments are caught in this restrained tension at the end of the movements.

1. Allegro con brio

The first movement maps out the F-A-F motif and develops that throughout the movement. There are a lot of quick changes in tonality from major to minor. Rooted in F major, the key often switches to the relative minor and then quickly comes back again. This creates this fabulous musical colour that Brahms was so talented at creating. The beginning grabs our attention by playing two very strong tonic and dominant chords. The theme set out by the violins is quite reminiscent and there is a feel for nostalgia. This movement goes through many twists and turns, but the musical foundation is always at the forefront. You can certainly hear from the different textures that Brahms plays with throughout this movement, that he was trained to a very high standard. A dance-like section takes over and the strings and winds are call and responding to one another. The use of brass on more fanfare-like section really makes such a fruitful effect within the orchestra. The lead up to the end of the movement is very exciting, loud and driven, and this is slowly brought back down both in terms of tempo, dynamic and range. The movement then ends on a tonic chord which fades away.

2. Andante 

The second movement begins with a chorale-like motif from the upper winds, which is interjected by the strings, however the winds return and lead this section boldly. There are some real dark moments in this movement where you can hear a tempestuous pedal note from the lower strings, and other more ‘woody’ instruments (bassoon, viola etc) start layering above each other to create a very interesting textual effect. This slow movement is not riddled with sadness, but more pensive feelings of nostalgia. There feels to me some sort of idea of ‘looking back’ – perhaps to Beethoven? The movement is absolutely lovely and the clarinet especially takes some wonderful solo lines throughout. The movement ends with a tonic chord, which is played very delicately by the whole orchestra.

3. Poco allegretto 

The penultimate movement of the symphony, directed Poco allegretto begins with a swaying motif from the strings. The mixture of pizzicato and arco strings creates a wonderful timbre to the start of this movement. There is a shift in tonality in this movement, as the previous was in C Major, and this movement is in C minor. This does not create darkness, but more colour to the music. The timbral build up at the end of the movement comes to a wonderfully delicate close at the end of the movement.

4. Allegro – Un poco sostenuto

The final movement of this fantastic symphony begins with a mysterious lower-string motif. This is taken and passed and developed around the orchestra, to again highlight the F-A-F motif from the first movement. There are lots of change in mood in this movement, with the tonality forever shifting between major and minor. The heavens open and there is this feverish string texture which leads us not to the triumphant ending that is expected, but a peaceful resolution. The ending is surprise, not just because it settles into F Major and not the minor, but because it ends in a such a way that was virtually unknown in the Romantic era. This ending allows the music to unwind and essentially put its last bit of energy into the memory and aura of the symphony’s opening.

Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 is such a fantastic work in many respects, and it’s certainly one of my favourite works by the composer. With all that went on in Brahms’ life, his music certainly retained a certain Romantic quality that is still loved today. I hope you have enjoyed this blog – as it’s the 80th blog on the site – so a massive thank you for all your support so far – here’s to many more blogs!

Happy Reading!

Recommended Recording:

Remember – you can listen to this work and all the other works I have covered on my new Spotify playlist – https://play.spotify.com/user/11101571136/playlist/2Yar9AQYE8RCe14RWHmXqo 

 

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