“Simon Rattle has finally dared to tackle Brahms with the Berliner Philharmoniker. He combines Furtwängler’s monumentality with Karajan’s beautiful sound” – the German weekly “Die Zeit” wrote about the first Brahms cycle performed by orchestra and conductor in the 2008/2009 season. Now there’s a new edition, expanded to include the symphonies by Brahms’s friend and patron Robert Schumann. This evening is the third round of the exciting project.
Symphony No. 3 in E flat major Rhenish
Symphony No. 3 in F major
Berliner Philharmoniker Foundation in co-operation with Berliner Festspiele/Musikfest Berlin
Much has been speculated about possible influences on Johannes Brahms’s Third Symphony, composed in the summer of 1883. Similarities between the main theme of the first movement and two bridge passages in Schumann’s Symphonies No. 1 (2nd movement) and No. 3 (1st movement) have been pointed out, not that any relevant indications were made by Brahms or Clara Schumann. (Each listener can arrive at his or her personal judgement with this juxtaposition of the two works conducted by Sir Simon Rattle.) One thing is clear: Brahms’s symphony filled his contemporaries with enthusiasm. “What a work, what poetry, the most harmonious mood throughout the whole piece, all the movements as if cast from one mould, one heartbeat, every movement is a jewel! – How one is surrounded by the mysterious spell of forest life from the beginning to the end!” (Clara Schumann).
Robert Schumann’s “Third”– in chronological terms his Fourth – was a resounding success at its premiere on 6 February 1851. The stirring and singularly vital work was celebrated as “a piece of Rhenish life in refreshing cheerfulness,” whereby the music “particularly made a visible impression in the first two middle movements” and was “heard to enthusiastic applause” (Rheinische Musikzeitung). The work’s title is attributed to Wilhelm Josef von Wasielewski, concertmaster of the Düsseldorfer Symphoniker and later Schumann’s biographer: the composer was “first inspired” to create the work “by seeing the Cologne cathedral”, which explains why it could be called “Rhenish”. Schumann, at least, was satisfied with his symphony: “Folk-like elements had to prevail here, and I believe I succeeded in doing so.”
“The memory of Schumann is sacred to me. That noble, pure artist will always serve as my model,” Johannes Brahms acknowledged in a letter of 1873. The mature Brahms, on the other hand, was not overly pleased about the belief which was prevalent during the later 19th century that, as a composer, he was Schumann’s successor, nor did he wish to be described as the pupil of his discoverer, advocate and fatherly friend, particularly since the two men became closer at a time when Schumann’s health began to deteriorate rapidly. There could hardly have been much opportunity for an in-depth exchange on compositional questions. Schumann’s influence was strong, but his impact on Brahms’s work was more subliminal.
The inner attitude of the generation-younger composer towards Schumann, who died in 1856 at the age of only 46, seems to have been ambivalent throughout Brahms’s lifetime anyway, although professional and extremely personal aspects overlapped in a special way. During the years of Schumann’s illness the emotionally inexperienced Brahms developed a strong affection for his wife Clara, the unparalleled pianist and mother of eight children, resulting in feelings of guilt and repressed desires. The relationship between Brahms and Schumann was no less complicated in terms of artistic practice.
Although Schumann made the 20-year-old Brahms famous overnight in the music world with his essay “Neue Bahnen” (New Paths), which was published in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik in 1853, hailing him with messianic exuberance as the long-awaited “chosen one” and the artist who was “destined to give ideal expression to the times”, he also saddled Brahms with an obligation that would weigh heavily on him for many years to come. Brahms had barely arrived on the scene when he found himself exploited for partisan purposes, as it were, and thrust into a prominent position in the controversy over the legitimate successor to Beethoven. He may also have felt that Schumann’s essay did not describe him adequately. When the enthusiastic author referred to Brahms as “a player of genius, who can make of the piano an orchestra of lamenting and loudly jubilant voices”, he captured an essential characteristic of the impulsive, passionate composer. Schumann did in fact encounter Johannes Brahms, the romanticist, during his young colleague’s visit of several weeks to Düsseldorf in early autumn of 1853. But it was precisely this facet of the ardent, emotional musician that would increasingly be concealed over the years behind a deliberately serious, almost unapproachable countenance.
Whereas Schumann often referred to the flight of inspiration as the crucial moment of artistic invention and was clearly sceptical of “long reflection” when composing, Brahms tended to be suspicious of impulsiveness and spontaneity. Steeped in the ideals of the Protestant work ethic – economy, perseverance, discipline – he strove for “lasting” music which, thanks to its painstaking craftsmanship, would stand up to comparison with the greatest masters of the past. Naturally, Brahms also welcomed spontaneous ideas, but he regarded them at best as points of departure for the creative process: “What one actually calls invention, meaning a real idea, is, so to speak, a higher perception, inspiration, that is to say, I can’t help it. From then onward I cannot disdain this ‘gift’ enough, and through incessant labour I have to make it my legitimate, well-earned property.”
Schumann, who often composed during manic episodes, also forced himself to iron discipline. From a certain point in time he apparently even refrained from freely improvising at the piano for fear of uselessly exhausting his ideas. For the most part self-taught as a composer, he continually tried to perfect his skills through rigorous study of counterpoint. Although he had composed almost exclusively for the piano during his early creative period, between 1840 and 1843 Schumann explored other important musical genres in succession – from the lied (1840) to symphonic works (1841) and chamber music (1842) to oratorio (1843).
From the beginning both Schumann and Brahms were fully aware of the social prestige of the symphony. “I was quite happy and only wished that you were my wife and I could also write such symphonies,” Schumann confessed in a letter to Clara in December 1839, after hearing a rehearsal of Schubert’s “Great” C major Symphony in Leipzig, which he himself had discovered among Schubert’s papers. In his early years Brahms was also plagued by the idea that he would not enjoy sufficient status and recognition to marry until he had achieved success with large-scale orchestral music. As a consequence, after the disastrous failure of his First Piano Concerto at the Leipzig performance he broke off his engagement to Agathe von Siebold, the daughter of a Göttingen doctor.
Many accounts have described how intimidated composers of that time were by the expectations associated with the symphonic genre. Beethoven’s symphonies had taken on the character of community-building “speeches to humanity” (Adorno); they had thus become a kind of public appeal which was actually repugnant to contemporaries in the restorative, domestic era after Napoleon’s defeat. The historically unparalleled congruence of great ideas and grand gestures in Beethoven’s symphonies, the combination of dramatic force and inner logic – all this set a standard in which the mere attempt to create something new and universally valid appeared to be either naïvely inflated self-esteem or a near-heroic deed. The appropriate quotation on this score comes from Brahms, of course, who during the early 1870s let conductor Hermann Levi know why he would never compose a symphony: “You have no idea what it’s like always to hear such a giant marching along behind you.”
The “Rhenish” is the only one of Schumann’s symphonies that dispenses with an introductory motto theme. The first movement begins spontaneously and exuberantly with the familiar main theme in the full orchestral tutti. Apart from this peculiarity, the work is also striking because of its five-movement structure; the – according to the symphonic norm – “extra” movement (the fourth) was entitled “Intermezzo. In the character of an accompaniment for a solemn ceremony” at the first performance. In comparison to the otherwise so cheerfully turbulent surrounding movements, in this E flat minor music full of archaic counterpoint and typical lament figures, abysses open up, seemingly questioning the relaxed character of the entire composition. As was the case with the Second Symphony, in the Third the rousing main theme of the first movement is taken up in the coda of the finale, and the work reaches its emphatic climax during this passage.
The melancholy character of Brahms’s Third Symphony results from a curious alternation between major and minor which already sets the tone of the opening motto theme, with its note sequence of F – A flat – F. This motto is the beginning of a main theme that also fluctuates between modes, which Carl Dahlhaus referred to as the “Schumann quotation”, probably because of a certain affinity with the main theme from the first movement of Schumann’s Third Symphony. The two inner movements with intermezzo character share the major-minor alternation, so to speak, since the second is in C major and the third in C minor. Brahms composed the finale in the unusual key of F minor; not until the slow coda does the music brighten up. The alternating motto theme from the opening is interspersed, although the motif subsequently seems to disappear in an epiloguelike process of disintegration; the work dies away in pianissimo and is thus brought to a convincing close without an apotheosis.