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.