Mercury Orchestra


Notes on the composers and the pieces

Johannes Brahms

Johannes Brahms: Symphony No. 3 in F Major, Op. 90

Johannes Brahms considered the symphony the highest form of orchestral writing and Beethoven its greatest exponent. He tinkered with a symphony for twenty years, but the idea of following Beethoven’s nine with one of his own was daunting. It was not until after the German Requiem established him as a major composer and the Haydn Variations had cemented his popularity that he felt ready to proceed in earnest. His Symphony No. 1 premiered in 1876 when the composer was forty-three years old. It caught on slowly, but it did catch on, and in doing so resurrected the symphonic form for many composers. A second symphony followed late in 1877. Then came the Violin Concerto (1878), Violin Sonata No. 1 (1879), Academic Festival Overture (1880), Piano Trio No. 2, and the String Quintet No. 1 (both 1882).

By now, nearing fifty, Brahms wondered if his best works were behind him. It must have been a delightful surprise when inspiration for a third symphony flooded over him in the summer of 1882 while he was vacationing near the Rhine. He immediately rented an apartment in Wiesbaden overlooking the Rhine where he could work uninterrupted. Four months later, Symphony No. 3 was finished. Hans Richter and the Vienna Philharmonic performed it in 1883 to a reception that may have been the most enthusiastic ever for a Brahms premiere, even with some hostile Wagnerians in the audience. Fritz Simrock and Antonin Dvořák both called it a beautiful work. The important Viennese critic Edward Hanslick pronounced it Brahms’s “most perfect” symphony. The accolades were so fervent that Brahms came to resent them for fear that the Third Symphony would eclipse his other works. Perhaps he would have preferred to be in Boston for the Third’s first performance there, where many people walked out.

In addition to its beauty, the Third is Brahms’s shortest, most tightly constructed, and most difficult to perform symphony. “It needs either a close analysis or none at all,” wrote Donald Tovey. Clara Schumann declared that “all the movements seem to be of one piece.” All four movements end quietly, a most unusual construction in pieces at that time. Richter dubbed it Brahms’s “Eroica,” perhaps not only because it was the composer’s third symphony but also because of its efficient structure and the way it grows out of the three-note figure that opens and dominates the work. Malcolm MacDonald noted that “[o]f all his orchestral compositions [the Third] is the one in which instrumental colour is most often enjoyed for its own sake.”

All this brings to mind Arnold Schoenberg’s controversial essay, Brahms as a Progressive, which argued somewhat tendentiously that Brahms was a modernist. Anton Webern, Schoenberg’s student, agreed. Both were admirers of Brahms, so perhaps Schoenberg’s essay was an effort to make Brahms one of their own. In any case, the imprint of Johannes Brahms extended into the twentieth century. Richard Strauss, Max Reger, and Franz Schmidt were influenced by him. Edward Elgar especially admired the Third Symphony. Post-Romantic Germans, Alexander Zemlinsky, Franz Schreker, Schoenberg himself, and Béla Bartók even composed as Brahmsians early in their careers.

Schoenberg’s essay did not cite Brahms’s Third Symphony, but it could have, for the Third is one of Brahms’s more progressive works. It opens with a three-chord fanfare in the brass and winds: F Major, F Minor, and F Major. The fanfare idea serves as a structural marker, appearing twice if the exposition is repeated. It is heard in slightly altered form before the development and recapitulation, and in more subdued form before the coda. The motto formed by the top notes of its chords (F–A Flat–F) is heard frequently in a variety of scorings in the first and last movements. It helps establish an unusual-for-the-time conflict of major vs. minor that carries through the symphony.

The first theme descends immediately from the peak of the opening fanfare in the minor. It is similar to a melody in the first movement of Robert Schumann’s Rhenish Symphony (hereon “Schumann”). Whether Brahms was honoring the man who championed him and became his friend or was thinking of the Rhine River is uncertain. This theme always moves downward. In its more powerful form, it is of a striding nature marked by rhythmic struggle, as the 6/4 meter tugs and slides between 2 and 3 beats per measure. The second theme is a songful melody introduced by the clarinet in major. The short development consists of the striding “Schumann” followed by the clarinet theme in the lower bassoon and cellos, now in minor, darkening the mood considerably. The harmonic and rhythmic struggle seems to end with a serene exchange of the motto between the horn and oboe followed by the second theme and a long sigh from the seemingly spent “Schumann.” Instead, Brahms surprises by launching a long recapitulation with the brass fanfare expanded in a remarkable chord progression in the trombones and bassoons. The struggle resumes with “Schumann” striding ruggedly. The second theme returns in major in the clarinet and is spun out in the stings. After a powerful climax, the subdued fanfare starts the coda, where the motto makes a final appearance before “Schumann” descends quietly to earth in the violins.

The Andante starts with a gentle swaying theme in the clarinet that turns prayerful because of the harmony. There follows a triplet idea in the violins followed by hanging woodwind chords that will combine with the triplet to assume major importance in the finale. The midsection is like a fantasia, with labyrinthine ornamentation around the main theme. After a surprisingly dark climax, the first theme expands to a sweeping climax before the peaceful ending.

Poco Allegretto is a darkish intermezzo in ABA form plus a coda. The A sections are based on a sweet but earnest melody. B is a trio with two themes, a delicately rhythmic one for winds, and a yearning one for strings. The coda blends the themes from the trio.

The complex, but tightly structured Allegro un poco sostenuto begins with a spooky rolling melody in the strings and bassoons. The trombones respond with the hanging woodwind chords from the Andante. Clarinets, bassoons, and strings combine that figure with the Andante’s triplets—a borrowing technique unusual for Brahms and somewhat for the period—to create a theme of quiet nobility. Powerful marked rhythms typical of Brahms stride through the orchestra, interrupted briefly by a singing melody in the low strings. These evolving ideas halt abruptly when the brass restate the chant-triplet theme in a stark and bold manner for the true climax of the work. The earlier development returns but yields to the rolling melody, assertive first in the violas, then peaceful and seemingly resolved. After the motto rises out of the quiet, the chant and triplet ideas expand into a long, soft chorale in the winds and brass, accompanied by string fluttering surprisingly reminiscent of the Magic Fire Music from Wagner’s Die Walküre. The motto emerges one last time to summon “Schumann” for a serene ending to a remarkable symphony.  

—Roger Hecht

Roger Hecht plays trombone in the Mercury Orchestra, Lowell House Opera, and Bay Colony Brass (where he is the Operations/Personnel Manager). He is a former member of the Syracuse Symphony, Lake George Opera, New Bedford Symphony, and Cape Ann Symphony. He is a regular reviewer for American Record Guide, contributed to Classical Music: Listener’s Companion, and has written articles on music for the Elgar Society Journal and Positive Feedback magazine. His latest fiction collection, The Audition and Other Stories, includes a novella about a trombonist preparing for and taking a major orchestra audition (English Hill Press, 2013).

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