Thursday, January 12, 2012

Brahms at 50: His 3rd Symphony

Johannes Brahms at 50
This weekend, Stuart Malina conducts the Harrisburg Symphony in one of his favorite works, the Symphony No. 3 by Johannes Brahms (actually, whatever Brahms symphony he's conducting at the time is his favorite: there are only four but how can you pick just one?). Also on the program, pianist Di Wu plays the ever-popular Piano Concerto by Edvard Grieg and the concert begins with En Saga by Jean Sibelius. It's called "Enchanting Escape" and you can join us for this musical get-away Saturday evening at 8pm and Sunday afternoon at 3pm at the Forum (Truman Bullard offers a pre-concert talk an hour before each performance).

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In May of 1883, Johannes Brahms invited a close friend of his to a “little small sad festival” to be attended by only four people. This was the way Brahms intended to celebrate his 50th birthday.

That summer, he wrote his Third Symphony which the Harrisburg Symphony will play this weekend under the direction of Stuart Malina, a self-avowed lover of Brahms’ music.

Here, Sir Colin Davis conducts the Dresden State Orchestra on their Japanese Tour in 2009 (recorded in Suntory Hall).
1st Movement part 1

1st Movement part 2

2nd Movement

3rd Movement

4th Movement
(notice the conductor mouths the words “too loud” to the orchestra even before the music begins! Brahms marks it ‘sotto voce’ and it needs to be whispered, almost inaudible.)

When he was 20, Johannes Brahms met Robert and Clara Schumann and there was much prophesying about future greatness, most of which seemed to backfire. For one thing, if he was the heir to Beethoven, where was all this great music? Even though Robert had described his piano sonatas as “veiled symphonies” and Clara had told him, to succeed, he would need to compose symphonies, the symphony he began sketching shortly after Robert Schumann threw himself into the Rhine – an attempted suicide – in 1854 did not become what we know as his first symphony which was completed in 1876, 22 years later. 

But he took his time, dealing with negative criticism and taunts from other contemporary composers like Liszt and Wagner. Brahms didn’t want to engage in the typical “on-the-job training” so many young composers have, producing immature works that will be forgotten and only incur further heckling from the crowd demanding proof he was, in fact, Beethoven’s musical heir.

Once that hurdle had been (finally) surpassed – Brahms was then 43 years old – he composed his 2nd Symphony in one summer the following year. The 3rd Symphony came along six summers later. It too was largely composed over one summer.

Brahms had become primarily a “summer composer,” going away to holiday spots (or spas, to be more exact) like Bad Ischl. The summer after his 50th birthday, he went to Wiesbaden, a spa-town on the Rhine (See a modern-day panorama of the city, below, taken from a mountain outside of town, looking toward the barely visible Rhine. Ignore the cell-phone tower on the left…)

A Modern View of Wiesbaden

His choice of location was not accidental.

Brahms had been born in the German city of Hamburg, a great port city on the Elbe River. When he visited the Schumanns, they lived in Düsseldorf, a city on the Rhine where Schumann had been the city’s “music director” and where he composed his 3rd Symphony, known as the “Rhenish.” It was the river he would shortly try to drown himself in.

The Rhine is also where Richard Wagner begins and ends his operatic cycle, The Ring of the Niebelung.

And Wagner, whom Brahms respected to a certain degree despite their rivalry, had just died in February, a few months before Brahms’ 50th birthday.

But the main reason Brahms chose Wiesbaden for his summer composing sojourn was one of its residents, a 26-year-old alto named Hermine Spiess (in some sources, her name is spelled Spies).

Brahms first heard her sing at a friend’s home that January and whatever their relationship was, Brahms found himself writing several songs inspired by that beautiful alto voice.

The first of his songs he’d heard her sing was the delightful, folkish “Vergebliches Ständchen” (which he’d heard her sing, that first meeting: a young man begs his sweetheart to let him in to say good night to her, but she laughs and shuts the window in his face – as Brahms joked after hearing Hermine sing it, “I’m sure she’d let him in!”) 

Many of the songs he wrote for her, rather than being the traditional love-songs you might expect, were, despite his flirtations, about unrequited love, rejection or the anxiety of growing older (think “mid-life crisis” 1880s-style). 

Hermine Spiess in 1887
Her family lived in Wiesbaden. Brahms jokingly called Hermine his “Rhinemaiden” (after the seductive young water nymphs who initiate Wagner’s “Ring”) and also, after Shakespeare’s queen in “The Winter’s Tale,” as “Hermione-ohne-O” – Harmione without the O.

How much of Hermine is in the Third Symphony remains to be seen. Brahms’ non-vocal music was always abstract but there were often specific associations he might have had in mind when composing it, regardless of what it might mean as a “program,” the dreaded “what-the-music-is-about” question. 

Certainly, lots of Brahms’ music makes covert references to Clara Schumann right down to his quoting or paraphrasing what Schumann himself called his “Clara Motive.” And then there’s his Farewell to Agathe von Siebold in his 2nd String Sextet, her name spelled out in musical pitches.

If there is anything referring to Hermione-ohne-O in the symphony he composed that summer, Brahms never hinted at it.

A more likely inspiration was his proximity to the River Rhine which might put a man officially in Middle Age reminiscing about the events of 30 years earlier and first met the Schumanns in a town on the Rhine. From the studio he rented on the hillside overlooking Wiesbaden, he could see the Rhine in the not great distance: did that bring to mind musical associations?

The opening theme of Brahms’ new symphony bears a strong resemblance to a passage from Schumann’s “Rhenish” Symphony, inspired by the very river that Brahms could see from his summer home.

It has the same kind of “swing” Schumann’s first movement theme has but later, Schumann varies his theme – check here to hear Schumann’s “Rhenish,” at 6:44 into the clip. (In the example above, I’ve transposed it from Schumann’s original pitches, starting on G, to Brahms’ theme, starting on F.) Interestingly, the theme is not really something you can build on: in Schumann’s case, it “closes” the harmonic motion and so Brahms has to open it up to make it a suitable theme he can build on. But perhaps, consciously or not, that is the inception point for Brahms’ inspiration: the proximity of the Rhine and the memory of Schumann’s musical tribute to it.

Whatever Brahms may have thought was behind his new symphony, what secret meanings there might be inside the music, he was completely silent about it. But others saw in it specific references: Hans Richter, who would conduct the premiere, after referring to Brahms’ 2nd Symphony as his Pastoral, called this one “Brahms’ Eroica” after Beethoven’s 3rd. Clara Schumann heard “the mysterious charms of woods and forests [in the first movement]… worshippers kneeling about the little forest shrine.” Joseph Joachim, for whom he’d composed his Violin Concerto a few years earlier, said the finale brought to mind the Greek myth of Hero and Leander: “I cannot help imagining the bold, brave swimmer, his breast borne up by the waves and by the mighty passion before his eyes, heartily, heroically swimming on, to the end, to the end, in spite of the elements which storm around him.” 

Certainly, there’s drama in the symphony – as naturally there would be, given the nature of the form – but is Brahms’ 3rd really his equivalent of Beethoven’s 3rd? The unexpected mood of the finale in the dark key of F Minor rather than some joyously affirmation in F Major, might lead you to think of dramatic struggles, but rather than a tragic ending or a final heroic resolution (as he ended his 1st Symphony), Brahms lets the clouds part and, in a very un-Brahmsian texture (but reminiscent of Wagner’s “Forest Murmurs”) brings back the opening movement’s first theme – perhaps his Rhine Motive – as a beautiful benediction. Perhaps, like Wagner’s “Ring,” it all begins and ends with the Rhine?

Perhaps it wouldn’t have been too far-fetched had someone called it “Brahms’ Rhenish”?

Opening Page of Brahms' original manuscript of his Symphony No. 3

Another famous association concerns its opening “gesture,” a musical motive that permeates the symphony.

Schumann had suggested he, Brahms and another of Schumann’s friends, Albert Dietrich, write a violin sonata by committee to honor violinist Joseph Joachim. They were to be given to him anonymously, he would play through them and then try to guess who wrote which movement. Brahms supplied the scherzo, usually known as the “Sonatensatz” (unimaginatively translated as “Concerto Movement”).

Collectively, this is known as the “F.A.E.” Sonata because Joachim’s life-motto, he said, was “Frei aber einsam” – Free but lonely.

Brahms, the perpetual bachelor – he had said he would attempt neither writing an opera nor marriage – joked that his motto was “F.A.F.” – Frei aber froh. Free but happy!

In that sense, the opening motive of the symphony he wrote at 50 starts off with a rising gesture, F–A-flat–F (see red bracket in the example).

The Opening of Brahms' Symphony No. 3 (without the inner voices)

Though our attention is commanded by the Schumann-quoted melody in the violins, in the basses and trombone, you hear the F–A-flat–F motive. A few measures later, it’s in the horns in the inner voices, transposed to C–E-flat–C and again in the trumpets. In the next measure, it’s in the lower strings and horns, this time as B-flat–D-flat–B-flat. After what sounds like a transition to a new theme a few more measures later, it reappears in the lower voices as A–C–A, what seems to be A Minor but it accompanies the F Major resolution before the violins restate the opening chords again, back into the F–A-flat–F pattern. So in the first 23 measures, you’ve heard that “Frei aber Froh” motive seven times, making a full-circle from F back to F!

What’s surprising about this – aside from the fact the motto should abbreviate to F–A–F, not F–A-flat–F – if the symphony’s in F Major (with an A-natural), why is this generating motive in F Minor (with an A-flat)?

It gives his harmony a pungent non-traditional sound: instead of a standard basic chord progression at the opening, he immediately swings from an F Major chord to a diminished seventh that should resolve to a C major chord but instead swings back to F Major before swinging off, once again, to an F Minor chord to a totally unexpected D-flat Major Chord before turning into that diminished seventh chord again but this time resolving as it should to the expected C Major chord which is also the dominant of the symphony’s tonic key, F Major.

Okay, I know that’s a lot of technical mumbo-jumbo, but if you wanted to know why this sounds different from, say, the opening of Beethoven’s 1st Symphony (speaking unexpected harmonic twists), that’s why. 

It also helps explain why the last movement is in F Minor rather than the expected F Major. And then, at the very end, after all this dark drama, the heavens open up and we hear this tremulous string texture – very unlike Brahms but bringing to mind, perhaps, Wagner’s “Forest Murmurs” – with the opening Rhenish theme in a benedictory F Major, leading not as you’d expect to an ultimately triumphant conclusion (like the 1st) or a joyous celebration (like the 2nd) but a peaceful resolution.

While it was one of possibly only two major successes Brahms ever had at a premiere – the public reaction to his German Requiem was the other one – and has gone on to become an audience favorite. Not quite a year after that world premiere in Vienna, it received its American premiere in New York – at a “Novelty Concert” – and a month later was performed in Boston where several hundred people walked out of the concert in protest of this “new music.”

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Oh, and what ever happened to Hermione-ohne-O?

In December of 1884, a year after the symphony’s premiere, Brahms was honored with an all-Brahms concert in the town of Oldenburg. He stayed with his friend Albert Dietrich (the third part of the F.A.E. Sonata’s committee) and brought with him seven guests including Hermine Spiess. Afterward, Hermine wrote to Dietrich’s daughter,

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“What I value most particularly is to have now enjoyed Brahms as a man. How charming he was with us when we were making and guessing riddles. What delightful hours we spent! …Of course, now I only play Brahms the livelong day.”

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As Jan Swafford notes in his excellent and wonderfully readable biography of Brahms,

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“She had met him more than a year before and spent much of the previous summer [when he was composing the 3rd Symphony] in Wiesbaden in his company. If Brahms had undertaken to court Hermine, and in his fashion he probably had, his approach was remarkably oblique. There is every reason to assume, anyway, as with other “respectable” women, that he flirted full-tilt and kept his hands to himself.”
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The following summer, Klaus Groth, a poet (then 66), sent both Brahms and Hermine a poem, “Come soon!” He and Brahms had a running joke about vying for Hermine’s attention, and so Brahms immediately sat down and composed a song to Groth’s poem and sent it to Hermine. That summer, he was working on the last two movements of his 4th Symphony.

The next summer, he composed one of his most ingratiating songs, “Wie Melodienzieht es mir,” as a musical portrait of “the effervescent Hermine” and sent it to her. She sang it frequently. By now, she was an acclaimed Brahms interpreter, especially of his Alto Rhapsody. 

Brahms wrote to another friend that summer, “I’m now getting to the years where a man easily does something stupid so I have to doubly watch myself.”

While he was waiting for Hermine to arrive for a visit that summer, he was working on the 2nd Violin Sonata. That November, he made arrangements for Hermine to make her Viennese debut as her accompanist, singing his songs. Friends pointed out that, his enthusiasm aside, Hermine was not developing as a singer. At that point, one could say their relationship, whatever it might have been or become, had crested.

Meeting again in 1888, Hermine met Brahms at a train stop in Basel and was shocked how gray he had become, though she still saw the youthfulness in his “beautiful blue young-man’s eyes and the fresh, dear features.” (He was 55…)

By now, Brahms comments to friends about any possible marriage is like a paraphrase of Groucho Marx about any country club that would accept him: Brahms would despise “a girl for taking me as a husband.” Before, it had been that he was too poor; now it was that he was too old. (He was, by the way, 56.)

Four years later, Hermine Spiess married a lawyer and retired from her career. A year after the wedding, she died in childbirth, a day after her 36th birthday.

By now, Brahms had passed whatever mid-life crisis may have affected his 3rd Symphony. Disappointed in the failure of his 4th Symphony and the Double Concerto (even with his friends), he destroyed a second violin concerto, a second double concerto and at least one more symphony.

- Dick Strawser

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