Brahms – Symphony No. 3

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

If I had to choose a single favorite composer, it would have to be Johannes Brahms. Among his many works, he wrote four symphonies, and every one of them is an absolute treasure. The only other composer that wrote at least four symphonies that shares that distinction, in my opinion, is Robert Schumann. Every one of Robert Schumann’s four symphonies is also a treasure. If you haven’t already done so, I encourage you to listen carefully to all eight of these symphonies. Robert Schumann’s profound musical influence on Brahms is frequently evident.

Robert Schumann (1810-1856)
Symphony No. 1 in B♭ Major (1841)
Symphony No. 2 in C Major (1846)
Symphony No. 3 in E♭ Major (1850)
Symphony No. 4 in D minor (1841; 1851)

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Symphony No. 1 in C minor (1855-1876)
Symphony No. 2 in D Major (1877)
Symphony No. 3 in F Major (1883)
Symphony No. 4 in E minor (1884)

One of the joys of collecting classical CDs for many years is going back to some of the older recordings in the music library and falling in love with them all over again. This week, it was a 1983 Deutsche Grammophon disc (410 083-2) of Leonard Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic performing the Brahms Third Symphony, and the Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn. The premiere of the Brahms Symphony No. 3 was 100 years earlier by this same orchestra, on 2 December 1883. The conductor was Hans Richter.

The Brahms Third Symphony is a masterful work by a mature and confident composer, full of interesting musical ideas and—if you listen carefully—some adventuresome idiosyncrasies.

In the first bars of the first movement, the symphony’s noble main theme is introduced, profound and inspired.

Brahms – Symphony No. 3: I. Allegro con brio (beginning)

Ambivalence resolves to tenderness at the conclusion of the second movement.

Brahms – Symphony No. 3: II. Andante (ending)

This excerpt from the third movement shows how Brahms moves gracefully from one musical idea to the next, propelling us forward to unexpected places and always holding our interest. It has been suggested that the rhythmic dissonance of the “bouncy” passages was inspired by Brahms’ fondness for Romani (gypsy) music.

Brahms – Symphony No. 3: III. Poco Allegretto (excerpt)

At the end of the symphony we return to the theme introduced at its beginning, now gloriously transformed, and surely transformative for the listener.

Brahms – Symphony No. 3: IV. Allegro (ending)

This fine CD by Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic concludes with the Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn, written ten years earlier, in 1873. Notably, this work also received its premiere by the Vienna Philharmonic, on 2 November 1873, conducted by Johannes Brahms himself.

Unknown to Brahms (or anyone at the time), the “Chorale St. Antoni” theme upon which this work was based was probably not written by Joseph Haydn. Its origins remain a mystery.

The “Chorale St. Antoni” theme is followed by eight variations, and then a finale. The sixth variation is my favorite:

Brahms – Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn, op. 56a, Variation VI: Vivace

Some Early Piano Music by Robert Schumann

Naïve V 5364

I discovered the music of Johannes Brahms before that of Robert Schumann, but I revere the latter composer now as well. Knowing much of the music of both, there is no question that Robert Schumann had a huge influence on Brahms. Both wrote four symphonies, all eight of which are favorites of mine.

But here we turn our attention to some of the early piano music of Robert Schumann, completed when Schumann was in his 20s, before he was finally able to marry Clara Wieck, and before his first symphony.

These are performances of considerable beauty, passion, and sensitivity by French pianist Lise de la Salle. I highly recommend this CD (Naïve V 5364). The recording is excellent, and De la Salle seems to have an innate understanding of this music and its often rapidly changing moods, a delight throughout.

The works performed are Scenes from Childhood, op. 15; Abegg Variations, op. 1; and Fantasie in C Major, op. 17.

There are thirteen pieces in Scenes from Childhood. The most famous of these is No. 7 Träumerei (Dreaming), but I also especially like No. 1 (Of foreign lands and peoples) and No. 2 (A curious story).

  1. Of foreign lands and peoples
  2. A curious story
  3. Blind man’s buff
  4. Pleading child
  5. Happy enough
  6. An important event
  7. Dreaming
  8. At the fireside
  9. Knight of the hobby-horse
  10. Almost too serious
  11. Frightening
  12. Child falling asleep
  13. The poet speaks

This is followed by the Schumann’s first published work, the Abegg Variations, op. 1.

The disc concludes with the three-movement work, Fantasie in C Major, op. 17, arguably Schumann’s piano masterpiece, and a real tour de force in this performance by Lise de la Salle. When he wrote this piece, Schumann was already beginning to suffer from a mental disorder that would tragically claim his life only 20 years later—an illness with a physical origin that no doubt today could be easily cured.

For an excellent introduction to Robert Schumann and his wife, Clara Wieck Schumann—a piano virtuoso, composer, and teacher of considerable talent—I wholeheartedly recommend the eight-part video course from Robert Greenberg, “Great Masters: Robert and Clara Schumann – Their Lives and Music” (The Great Courses, Course No. 759).

Even though it is a highly fictionalized account, I would also recommend the 1947 movie Song of Love, starring the incomparable Katharine Hepburn as Clara Wieck Schumann, Paul Henreid as Robert Schumann, and Robert Walker as Johannes Brahms.

Brahms – Symphony No. 1

If I had to pick a favorite symphony—and that would be difficult to do as I love so many—then it would have to be Symphony No. 1 by Johannes Brahms.  Though he completed it in 1876 at the age of 43, he had been working on it for something like 21 years.  He was a consummate perfectionist, and it shows.

The Madison Symphony Orchestra performed this extraordinary work this past weekend as the second half of a really fine program featuring Alban Gerhardt  playing the Walton Cello Concerto, and Rossini’s Overture to Semiramide.  We are so very fortunate to have an orchestra of this caliber in southern Wisconsin, and music director John DeMain is a treasure.  I am a season subscriber, of course, and attend all the concerts except for the Christmas program in December.

Johannes Brahms in 1876

I cannot get through a performance of the Brahms First Symphony without being moved to tears, and Sunday’s excellent performance by the MSO was no exception.  The final section of the second movement (Andante sostenuto) features an incredibly beautiful violin solo, gorgeously played by concertmaster Naha Greenholtz.  The fourth and final movement (Adagio — Più andante — Allegro non troppo, ma con brio — Più allegro) is pure ecstasy.  Just when you think the symphony is drawing to a conclusion, it launches into another, even more remarkable, section.  And that happens more than once.  The modulating transition to the coda in measures 367-390 (about 15:42 to 16:24 into the movement, two minutes before the end) for me is one of the most exciting sections of the entire work.

I once asked my friend and accomplished horn player John Wunderlin—who is similarly deeply moved by orchestral music—how he keeps from choking up during the most moving passages he plays.  “Fear of messing up” he said, half jokingly and half serious.  Part of the discipline that any professional musician must have is maintaining composure  during even the most moving and beautiful sections.  I don’t think I could do it.  But I did once see a teary-eyed violinist in the orchestra at the conclusion of a work.  Want to know what that work was?  It was the Symphony No. 1 by Johannes Brahms.

Einstein, Brahms, and Exoplanets

What do Albert Einstein, Johannes Brahms, and exoplanets have in common?  They are all great courses provided by The Great Courses.

Call me old fashioned, but I love a great lecture presented by an expert in the field.  What a wonderful way to get introduced to a new subject, or refamiliarize yourself with an old subject, or deepen your knowledge about a subject with which you are already familiar.

I recently finished watching the magnificent course “Albert Einstein: Physicist, Philosopher, Humanitarian” by Don Howard, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, former Director of Notre Dame’s Graduate Program in History and Philosophy of Science, and a Fellow of the University of Notre Dame’s Reilly Center for Science, Technology, and Values.

I have taken an interest in Einstein since I first encountered relativity in my early teens, and of course being a physics major in college I became much more familiar with Einstein’s remarkable scientific contributions.  But this course surprised and delighted me with many details about Einstein himself.  Howard obviously has a much deeper understanding of Einstein the person than most physicists do, and his enthusiasm for his subject comes through in every lecture.  I doubt you will find a more thorough treatment of Einstein anywhere short of reading a biography.  Recommended!

As luck would have it, while I was nearing the end of this course, Time came out with an updated reissue of its special edition, “Albert Einstein: The Enduring Legacy of a Modern Genius”.  Great photographs, great text.  Well worth every penny!


Robert Greenberg is music historian-in-residence with San Francisco Performances and has produced a lot of high-quality music courses for The Great Courses.  I am in the process of watching all of them (yes, really, they’re that good!).  Recently, I finished his course on Johannes Brahms, who is probably my all-time favorite composer.

The music of Brahms is well known by many, but how much do you know about Johannes Brahms the person, and the events of his life?  This course is the perfect introduction to those subjects, as well as his extraordinary compositions.

It is amazing to me that no one has yet made a feature-length film about the life of Johannes Brahms (1833-1897).  A historically accurate dramatic portrayal could easily become one of the most significant musical film biographies ever made.  Brahms was one of the greatest composers who ever lived, and he had an interesting life—there is much material to draw upon for the making of this movie.  Greenberg’s course is a great place to begin, and I would also recommend the definitive biography, “Brahms: His Life and Work” by Karl Geiringer.


You’ve just got to love The Great Courses.  This is what television could have been.  PBS is the only thing that even comes close.  I recently completed “The Search for Exoplanets: What Astronomers Know” presented by Joshua Winn, now Professor of Astrophysical Sciences at Princeton University.  Not since Carl Sagan or Neil deGrasse Tyson have I been this excited about an astronomy presenter.  Josh Winn presents his exoplanets course with enthusiasm, precision, and a delivery that really draws you in to the subject.  I hope we see much more of him in the future.