Johannes Brahms hesitated to write a symphony. What remained to be said after Beethoven? When he finally got down to it, the First Symphony of 1876 was so successful that he wasted no time in producing a Second. A six-year symphonic silence then followed before his third symphony was heard.
When did Brahms compose his Third Symphony?
Begun in 1882 during a holiday in Wiesbaden and completed the following summer, its premiere, given by Hans Richter and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, was one of Brahms’ greatest triumphs – all the more surprising given that the Third Symphony is anything but gallery fun.
By the time of this premiere, the once debonair composer and even model of a 19th-century romantic poet had long since metamorphosed into the lush, portly-bearded Johannes Brahms. Although modest by nature, he perhaps felt that a certain gravity was necessary if he were to resemble the famous composer who had not only written a multitude of melodies, choral music, chamber music and solo piano, but also two acclaimed symphonies, two epic piano concertos, a violin concerto of Beethovenian stature and a much-admired concerto Ein deutsches Requiem.
romantics at war
The conductor and pianist Hans von Bülow, his benefactor and friend and founder of the Meiningen Court Orchestra which programmed many of his works, hailed him as “after Bach and Beethoventhe greatest, the most sublime of all composers”, a sentiment not shared by the Russian contemporary of Brahms Tchaikovsky, who infamously dubbed him “a talentless bastard”. Composer and music critic Hugo Wolf dismissed the symphonies as “disgusting and bland, fundamentally false and perverse”. Even today, Brahms remains one of the most controversial composers.
It was the Vienna of Brahms, a city at permanent war with itself, which had originally drawn the lines of battle. The composer found himself in the crossfire of two opposing slaps, known as Romantic War. His detractors condemned him as regressive, a worn force compared to his fashionable contemporaries. wagner and Liszt. However, in a 1933 conference, no less visionary than Schoenberg, the main protagonist of the second avant-garde Viennese school, would praise Brahms not only as a leading torchbearer for the tradition of German music since Bach, but also as an essential link in the development of Western music. Either way, history has judged his four symphonies sufficient to earn him a place among the greatest symphonic composers, with the Third perhaps closest to an inner portrait of this complex, Janus.
A guide to Brahms’ Symphony No. 3
After the heroism of the First Symphony and the pastoral flavors of the Second (and prefacing the tragedy inherent in the Fourth), the Third inhabits a more uncertain world. Unlike its predecessors, it offers no triumphant conclusion. Instead, it asks questions that remain largely unanswered. All four movements end quietly, unprecedented in symphonic literature at that time.
The Third is the most Schumannian of Brahms’ Symphonies, one that reflects Robert Schumann’s description of his own psychological makeup as Florestan and Eusebius (“impulsive and spontaneous” and “inward and reflective”). Twenty-seven years after Schumann’s death, Brahms pays loving tribute to his former mentor and friend with a quotation from the opening movement of ‘Rhenish’, Schumann’s third symphony from 1850. allegro with brio of Brahms’ symphony is rich in rhythmic and lyrical invention, embracing a wide range of feelings from euphoria to melancholy. Brahms asks for a repeat of the brief exposition – without it the listener misses the heightened sense of excitement before the development rushes in. After a turbulent ride, the music stops with a gentle reminder of the opening motto theme.
The clarinet Andante has its moments of serenity, although they do not conceal a depth of regret. Towards the end, however, the violins have the chance to shine with a crescendo of ecstatic joy before the coda is allowed to dissolve into silence. Perhaps the tenderly nostalgic Poco allegretto What follows is a song of farewell to Schumann’s widow, Clara, the love that had once consumed young Brahms for her friend and muse never fully fading.
The finale begins with confidence but the storm clouds soon gather. After many atmospheric and rhythmic twists, and what looks like the prospect of a triumphant finale, it finally comes full circle, ending with a sweet echo of the symphony’s opening bars. At nightfall, it is Brahms “the intimate and reflective” who has the last word, at least for the moment. The Fourth Symphony would tell a different story.
The best recordings of Brahms’ Symphony No. 3
Otto Klemperer (driver)
Warner Classics 404 3382
The Third is the most difficult to perform of Brahms’ Symphonies, which may explain the small number of fully successful recordings. Even the great Arturo Toscanini never quite “cracked” – but if you want to hear it, make sure it’s the Philharmonia live recording and not his NBC Symphony Orchestra account. Others fall just short of first place for omitting the important repetition of the first movement – as well as Bruno Walter (see right), these include John Barbirolli and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, which are otherwise on simply glorious form, and William Steinberg’s superb recital with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, though their performance is so convincing that one can almost forgive the omission.
If you want a full but not overly muted Brahmsian sound, you won’t do better than opt for the 2013 live set of Riccardo Chailly’s symphonies with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, beautifully recorded on their own territory. Their Tiers is painted in dazzling colors typical of a work often described as autumnal.
Leading the pack, however, is Otto Klemperer in his 1957 recording at Kingsway Hall with the Philharmonia. Contrary to expectation – his tempos were generally slow – Klemperer does not lag and throughout the four movements the music flows fairly quickly. He splits his violins for dramatic effect and watches the exposition repeat. He might also be a cool customer, but there’s nothing cold about this honest yet deeply felt take on the score, even if it leans more towards the classical than the romantic end of the musical spectrum.
It is essentially a symphony for winds, and the incomparable Philharmonia woodwind choir needs no encouragement to sing. A review of the stereo LP even complained that the opening bars were too full of oboe, but in fact the overall orchestral balance is quite good. The original sound quality may have been rather acerbic, but in its current revamped form it’s both clear and warm.
Brahms’ Third was a work close to Klemperer’s heart and he performed it at what turned out to be his last concert in 1971. It is available on disc in fuzzy, “off-air” mono sound and probably primarily of interest to Klemperer finalists. The previous tale is in a higher league, with a conductor and orchestra captured at their peak and leaving all comers in its shadow.
BRuno Walter (conductor)
During their Indian summers, Klemperer and Walter became polar opposites. This 1960 account of the Third with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra has all the musical qualities associated with the late Walter, above all a humanity and generosity of spirit that shines through in every bar – he smiles more often than his grim-faced contemporary. However, there is also a lot of backbone here. Although Walter doesn’t include the exposure repeat – which is a shame – it’s still one to treasure, with very good stereo sound quality.
Wilhelm Furtwängler (conductor)
Warner Classics 9029545104
Furtwängler was a creative artist who seemed less to interpret than to disassemble and then recompose the scores before him. He described the Brahms Symphonies as “a wild, fantastic and even demonic universe”, which is what he evokes in this recording of the Berlin Philharmonic. The opening bars are volcanic, erupting in a lava flow of angry sound, and near the start of the finale, an unsteady Berlin audience is momentarily stunned by a coronary blast from the trombones – this is no performance for the shy. The sound quality of this 1949 recording is also surprisingly good.
Claudio Abbado (conductor)
DG 429 7652
Following the Meiningen Court tradition of interpreting Brahms on a smaller scale, Paavo Berglund and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe offer many perspectives, as do Charles Mackerras and Robin Ticciati, both with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, and Thomas Dausgaard with the Swedish Chamber Orchestra. However, despite all their merits, none of them replacesClaudio Abbadofrom 1989 with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, which combines similar transparency with orchestral weight.
Besides being one of the best romantic composers, Brahms was also one of the best German composers of all time and one of the greatest composers of all time.