Program Notes: Noble & Great

This weekend—which, incidentally, marks Brahms’s 183rd birthday—we conclude our traversal of the German master’s four symphonies. Today’s program opens with the idyllic Third Symphony. After intermission, we’ll hear the monumental Fourth.


Symphony No. 3 in F major, Opus 90

Johannes Brahms
(Born 7 May 1833 in Hamburg, Germany; Died 3 April 1897 in Vienna, Austria)

Composed: 1883

Premiere: 2 December 1883; Vienna, Austria

Last MSO Performance: May 2012; Edo de Waart, conductor

Instrumentation:  2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, strings

Approximate Duration: 33 minutes

Brahms had planned to spend the summer of 1883 in Bad Ischl. (He’d finished his second piano trio, his first string quintet, and the choral/orchestral Song of the Fates there the previous summer.) His intentions changed abruptly during a trip to the Rhine, however, when the inspiration to compose his F major symphony came to him. He traveled instead to Wiesbaden, where he rented a well-situated lodging high above the town and, after a few preparatory drafts, penned all four movements in short order. His choice of Wiesbaden may have been influenced by the presence there of the 26-year-old mezzo-soprano Hermine Spies. His interest in her, both as a woman and a singer gave rise to a number of fine songs for voice and piano.

Of his symphonies, Brahms’s Third is his shortest and most tightly knit. It is unusual in that all four movements end quietly. Its orchestration possesses what the Brahms scholar Karl Geiringer called “deep-toned luminosity.” Peaceful and reflective on the whole, it is not without substantial doses of strength and power.

The Allegro’s opening top-voice motif—F, A-flat, F—is found throughout the symphony. As is customary, the movement is set in sonata form; in this instance, there’s a protracted exposition and a relatively short, but especially impassioned, development section. Listen for the horns to state the opening motif, this time E-flat major, as the harbinger of the recapitulation and its quiet ending. The Andante, A-B-A in form, is set in the clear-eyed key of C major. The clarinet—one of the master’s favorite instruments—is featured, particularly in the opening and closing sections. Its distinctive timbre lends a sylvan coloring to this movement, one of sentient quietude.

An arching cello theme in C minor opens the eloquent third movement. The melody is soon taken up by the violins, as expressive chordal suspensions and unexpected phrase lengths add forward momentum. Following a gentle middle section, to be played “sweetly” and “expressively,” the opening cello motif is given to a solo horn. Brahms makes the three-part form of the movement more telling by varying the orchestration for the repeat of this material.

By setting the last movement of his F major symphony in F minor, the composer is able to use the struggle between these two modes to create a Finale that is suspenseful, powerful, and ingeniously crafted. Considering what we know of late-19th-century symphonies, we might reckon the conclusion here to be a surprise. (How many such works end quietly?) After the cloud-covered conflict of natural forces unleashed in this movement, the master gives us a message of hope and freedom—an F major rainbow after a torrential downpour.

Recommended Recording: Charles Mackerras, Scottish Chamber Orchestra (Telarc)

Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Opus 98

Composed: 1884

Premiere: 25 October 1885; Meiningen, Germany

Last MSO Performance: May 2013; Edo de Waart, conductor

Instrumentation:  2 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, percussion (triangle), strings

Approximate Duration: 39 minutes

Brahms composed the first two movements of his Fourth Symphony during the summer of 1884 in the resort town of Mürzzuschlag, about 70 miles southwest of Vienna. He returned there the following summer to write the final two movements of what would prove to be his last symphonic work. (The Double Concerto for violin and cello followed two years later.)

Today, this symphony is such a beloved part of the orchestral canon that it’s hard for us to imagine that Brahms had some anxiety about its accessibility and how it might be received by the public. The composer was fortunate to have the friendship of Hans von Bülow—conductor, virtuoso pianist, and composer—who, several years earlier, had placed the Meiningen Court Orchestra at Brahms’s disposal. Bülow relished every musical detail and took great pains in building the sound of the ensemble, holding sectional rehearsals and demanding the best of every player. The result was exemplary performances of remarkable beauty. Delighted by the Fourth’s “unparalleled energy,” Bülow had rehearsed it with such intensity that the composer was empowered to lead the well-prepared Meiningen band in a superb performance.

The Fourth Symphony is more by-the-book and more compact than its three predecessors. And it is here that the German master is the most backward-glancing. “Brahms looked upon himself as the guardian and preserver of great traditions, states Karl Geiringer in his biography of the composer. “His symphonies, in the last resort, like the orchestral compositions of J.S. Bach, originated from chamber music, and excelled through the beautiful structural union of all their parts.”

The opening movement, soaring and intense, has been described as “an elegiac ballad.” Brahms uses a two-note motif to create its main theme, stated in the violins. Later, in the woodwinds, he uses an imitation of the theme to accompany the theme itself. The longer melodies ebb and flow with great beauty, while contrapuntal underpinnings add texture and richness. Following the fortissimo conclusion of the first movement, two horns lend an archaic quality by beginning the second movement in the medieval Phrygian mode. Then, quiet pizzicato string chords, now in E major, accompany a legato melody in the winds. Animated and serene by turns, the Andante displays an abundance of rich harmony and tone colors. The 21-year-old Richard Strauss said it brought to mind “a funeral procession moving in silence across moonlit heights.”

The Allegro giocoso is the closest Brahms ever came to a bona fide scherzo. For extra voltage, he added a piccolo, a contrabassoon, a triangle, and a third kettledrum to the scoring. The structure is not that of a traditional scherzo, however; there’s no trio section. (It’s more like a sonata form without a development section.) Writing two years after the symphony’s premiere, Herbert Kretschmar noted the movement’s “hastening, restless rhythms... its suddenly pulsing energy, and... the predominant harshness of its character.”

For his final symphonic utterance, Brahms chose the old form of the chaconne. The theme that recurs throughout is taken from the bass line of the final movement of J.S. Bach’s cantata Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich, BWV 150 (“After You, Lord, Do I Yearn”). (It’s possible, too, that the 19th-century master took inspiration from the 17th-century master’s Chaconne in D minor, BWV 1004 for unaccompanied violin: He revered the piece enough to arrange it for piano, played by the left hand alone.) The 52-year-old composer’s genius is on full display here. The simple melodic idea, eight bars in length, is repeated some 30 times. Without a single modulation or transitional passage, Brahms varies the textures, the dynamics, and the orchestration to fashion a work of singular beauty and creativity. We are led, says Kretschmar, into the realm “where the human bends its knee to the eternal.”

Recommended Recording: George Szell, Cleveland Orchestra (Sony)

Program notes by J. Mark Baker.