Brahms: Symphony No. 3 and the Three B's

by Victoria Aschheim

On March 5, 2010, at 8pm in Sanders Theatre, you will be treated to what the Viennese experienced in 1883, a year in which Brahms was heralded as one of the three B’s by Hans von Bulow, who wrote: "Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms do not alliterate with one another by chance." These three B’s, the Holy Trinity of symphonic music, have been linked from 1876 on, when the first of Brahms’s four symphonies burst onto the world stage. Johannes Brahms (born in Hamburg, Germany, 1833-1897) is credited with reviving the "classical" symphony as a living and ongoing genre, inheriting Beethoven’s mantle as a symphonic genius. Beethoven loomed large for Brahms. In Brahms’s music room in Karlsgasse in Vienna, equipped by friends with electric light installed as a surprise for him, Brahms had on display a huge bust of Beethoven brought from Hamburg that hung on the wall above Brahms’s Streicher piano; nearby in his music room Brahm’s kept a coffee machine handy for refreshment - no local Starbucks then!

Richard Wagner was enraged at Brahms’s success with the symphony genre. Brahms was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Breslau soon thereafter, with the wording "the leader in the art of serious music in Germany today." Wagner, wrote Richard Taruskin, composed an essay "in fury amid the publicity surrounding Brahms’s degree." Wagner fumed: "I know of some famous composers who in their concert masquerades don the disguise of a street singer one day, the hallelujah periwig of Handel the next, the dress of a Jewish Csardas-fiddler another time, and then again the guise of a highly respectable symphony dressed up as Number Ten." What inspired this anger in Wagner, Taruskin wrote, was Wagner's realization that the "New German School could no longer assert exclusive rights to the interpretations of German music history." Brahms had, as it were, stepped up to the plate, and carried on Beethoven's legacy of the symphony.

There was an uproar in the profession at the time about Brahms. The renowned music analyst Hanslick then wrote: "Richard Wagner and his disciples go so far as to not only deny the possibility of writing symphonies after Beethoven, but also the justification for the existence of purely instrumental music altogether." Wagner felt that the symphony was superfluous because he had transplanted it into opera. Hanslick greatly praised Brahms’s Symphony No. 3, announcing that it was truly something new. Heinrich Schenker, another famed musical analyst, wrote about Brahms in his obituary: "Above all he (Brahms) proved that absolute music must not be regarded as a territory that has been permanently forfeited. It is true of course that Beethoven demarcated the boundaries of this territory, and his reign was a veritable golden age which will never come again, but Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Schumann showed that freedom of expression was still possible in the land of Beethoven…Brahms, like Haydn, Mozart, Schumann, and every other great figure of his art, will soon be numbered among the masters of the purest, most innocent simplicity, and the most beautiful melody."

Brahms had sent the score of his Third Symphony to Clara Schumann, the widow of Robert Schumann, to celebrate her 64th birthday. She replied: "I have spent such happy hours with your wonderful creation. What a poem! From beginning to end one is wrapped about with the mysterious charm of the woods and forest. The second movement is pure idyll: I can see the worshippers kneeling about the little forest shrine. I hear the babbling brook and the buzz of insects. One’s beating heart is soon calmed down again for the final transfiguration which begins with such beauty in the development motive, that words fail me." Brahms’s Third Symphony has been described by Walter Frish as "one of the greatest explorations of instrumental form in the Classic-Romantic era…Nowhere else in the music of Brahms do thematic and harmonic associations develop as strong a sense of growing recognition for the listener as in the Third Symphony."

As Kofi Agawu (formerly of Harvard's Music Department) has so aptly explained, "Brahms’s symphonies have established a major presence in the concert hall…they still represent a means by which the highest orchestral standard is judged." Agawu tells that the secure grounding in an Austro-Germanic music tradition gives Brahms’s symphonic works "their unique emotional, spiritual, and intellectual appeal." Come and experience in Sanders Theatre the "mysterious charm of the woods and forest" that Clara Schumann so enchantingly described. And watch this space for my Movement-in-a-Minute series, where I'll introduce you to each movement of Brahms's Third Symphony, along with musical examples played by my HRO colleagues!

Photos by Victoria Aschheim

[Caption: Concertmaster Foster Wang '10 stands as HRO tunes]

[Caption: Caramel-colored double basses at rest during the Orchestra's break, blending with the mahagony glow of Sanders Theatre's stage]