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ClassicsOnline Home » BRAHMS, J.: Symphony No. 3 (Park Avenue Chamber Symphony, Bernard)
Symphony No. 3 in F Major, Op. 90
Première: Vienna, December 2, 1883.
For Clara Schumann’s sixty-fourth birthday, Brahms was going to bring her a bouquet, “…but the shop lay out of his way.” He also thought of bringing her some photographs, “…but he was too lazy!!” Instead, Brahms sent her a score for his new symphony. Clara’s listeners upon their first hearing of this work. Clara’s letter is quoted in Jan Swafford’s biography:
I have spent such happy hours with your wonderful creation…What a work! What a poem!…From start to finish one is wrapped about with the mysterious charm of the woods and forests…The second is pure idyll; I can see the worshippers kneeling about the little forest shrine, I hear the babbling brook and the buzz of the insects…[In the finale] 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.
Clara’s is not the only relationship to Brahms that is illuminated through this symphony. Scholars have long noted that the opening theme with which the strings enter is regarded as a theme of Robert Schumann (1810–1856). Specifically, the theme derives from Schumann’s Symphony No. 3, the “Rhenish” Symphony, which likewise has a pull between simultaneous duple and triple meters. In that these melodic figurations came to have connotations with the Rhine, a further relationship to Richard Wagner (1813–1883), who died earlier the same year, is evident. One scholar hears an affinity between Wagner’s Rhine motifs and those of Schumann.
Joseph Joachim, the violin virtuoso, was among the closest and oldest friends Brahms had, as noted above. A letter in support of Joachim’s wife that Brahms had written in confidence became a decisive piece of evidence in the court dispute. Nonetheless, while standing by the letter and regretting its having been made public, Brahms offered Joachim the opportunity to conduct the second performance of the Symphony in Berlin. Joachim accepted: “When I play your concerto tonight I shall be taking your ‘proffered hand,’ and…I shall regard it as a great privilege if I can give the Symphony.”
Finally, the Symphony also reveals the tensions with the nationalistic and anti-Semitic cult that adopted Bruckner as its musical champion. Conservative factions on the
rise in Austria made a political cause for music that was instinctual and unmediated in its connection to German soil and spirit. This was a new incarnation of a Wagnerian ideology that was both revolutionary and reactionary. Liberal factions stood on the side of Brahms who shunned anti-intellectualism’s coarseness. Against the Symphony one anti-Semitic critic wrote: “What wretched barrenness of ideas reigns in this…movement, which does not even disdain Jewish-temple triplets simply to appear properly ‘understandable.’” Such ugliness of sentiment resides only in the words of this critic and not in the music of Brahms.
Compositionally the Symphony is as complex as it is accessible. While this may sound paradoxical, the contradiction between comprehensibility and sophistication is illusory. In each movement, Brahms devises themes that are so distinctive and of such great potential for development that the listener in confronting the new never becomes disoriented. The three-measure motif that introduces the Symphony in the winds immediately becomes the bass line that supports the Schumann theme and is heard periodically throughout the first movement. The three notes—F, A-flat, F—were an abbreviation for the Brahmsian motto: Frei aber froh! (“Free, but happy!”). Joachim’s motto Frei aber einsam (“Free, but lonely”) may have been closer to reality. But Brahms makes the most of his “F, A-flat, F” motif in the first movement. The second and third movements are both akin to Mendelssohn’s ideal of a Lied ohne Worte, a song without words. The clarinet is a featured soloist in the second movement. Most famous among the four movements, and perhaps the most beloved by audiences who would regularly demand its encore, is the third movement. It features the cello section and later solos of its impressive theme by the horn and oboe. While the theme is utterly melodious, the counterpoint with which it is set is rather dissonant. Accented tones in the melody are invariably dissonant with the counterpoint. Without this dissonance, the movement would be bland, and bereft of its mysterious poignancy. The last movement is one of enormous vitality, minor-major contrast and a sense of homecoming at the end where the Schumann theme returns in its most peaceful and serene evocation.
Steven J. Cahn
Steven J. Cahn is Program Annotator of the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony. He is Associate Professor of Music Theory at the College-Conservatory of Music, University of Cincinnati.
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BRAHMS, J.: Symphony No. 3 (Park Avenue Chamber Sy...