The German composer Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) was a sober and sensitive man. He was committed to seriousness and tradition, and valued the legacy of the previous generations of composers. His meeting with Robert Schumann (1810-1856), another figurehead of German Romantic music, had an important influence on Brahms’ life and career. Despite differences in style and aesthetic conceptions, there was a strong musical and personal bond between the two composers, as well as between Brahms and Schumann’s wife Clara. In his Third Symphony, Brahms seems to be saying farewell to an intense period of his life.
So Johannes Brahms wrote in a letter dated 1857, a little over a year after the death of his friend and mentor Robert Schumann. Brahms’ friendship with Schumann and his wife, the renowned concert pianist Clara Wieck, was very precious to each of them. They had the sense of having found a soulmate in each other. But soon after getting to know Brahms, Schumann’s mental health declined. After an attempted suicide, he was admitted to an institution, where he died two years later. Brahms supported Clara and her eight children with word and deed during that period, and even moved in with them. During this period, he began to develop increasingly passionate feelings for Clara, but to this day it is unclear to what extent they were reciprocated.
After Schumann’s death, Clara was more distant; something that Brahms could not fail to notice. He tried to suppress his feelings for Clara – as the quotation above attests. He was successful in the end, but his bond with Clara remained very close throughout his life, and his respect for Robert Schumann and his work continued unabated. In 1883, when he was fifty years old and a famous musician as well an inveterate bachelor, Brahms wrote his Third Symphony. The work seems to be an homage to his friend and mentor Robert Schumann, while at the same time a melancholy remembrance of the days when he was close to Clara.
The work opens with a 3-note motif: F – Ab – F, to be read as a musical transposition of Brahms’ personal motto, ‘Frei aber froh` (free but happy). In other words: a bachelor but happy. The motto is in a minor key (therefore the Ab). Was Brahms not as happy in his unmarried state as he let on, after all? Immediately after that, the first theme of the first movement begins with a literal quotation from Schumann’s Third Symphony. And thus, Brahms’ own personality and that of Schumann are bound together from the outset. The themes return a few more times throughout the symphony, and both the first and the last movements close with it. What is remarkable, and unusual, is that all four parts of the symphony end in a quiet mood.
The second and third movement make it clear why Brahms’ orchestral works have been called ‘a higher form of chamber music’. The orchestration is modest, giving the music an intimate character. The third movement in particular is known for its melancholy – reinforced by the power of a horn solo, the German Romantic instrument of predilection. The last movement begins quietly but then suddenly bursts out and maintains its boisterous character for quite some time. The main theme of the second movement – introduced there by the clarinet and bassoon – is given a grim turn here in the brasses. The music finally comes to a rest, and the ‘Frei aber froh’ theme is heard once again. The last word is left to the so-called Schumann theme, though this time it sounds rather more resigned: the days of yesteryear are gone for good.
Commentary by Remco Mostert and Aurélie Walschaert (editing)