Program Notes

Johannes Brahms

BORN: May 7, 1833. Free City of Hamburg (now Germany)
DIED: April 3, 1897. Vienna, Austria
COMPOSED: Begun in 1882, completed at Wiesbaden the following summer
WORLD PREMIERE: December 2, 1883. Hans Richter led the Vienna Philharmonic
NORTH AMERICAN PREMIERE: October 24, 1884. Frank van der Stucken conducted
SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—January 1913. Henry Hadley conducted. MOST RECENT— February 2017. Herbert Blomstedt conducted
INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons and contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings
DURATION: About 30 mins
THE BACKSTORY Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schumann—compared to Johannes Brahms, they had barely left school when they launched their symphonic careers. Brahms saw those forebears as examples, inspiring and intimidating. For years he remained determined to join their league, to harness the orchestra as they had and add his name to the historic line they represented. By the time he pulled it off with the premiere of his First Symphony, he was already forty-two.
Brahms had been an early bloomer. He was barely out of his teens when Robert Schumann, unable to curb his enthusiasm, introduced him in the pages of Europe’s most influential music journal, the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, as “the one . . . chosen to express the most exalted spirit of the times in an ideal manner, one who [sprang] fully armed from the head of Jove... [A] youth at whose cradle the graces and heroes of old stood guard.” Overnight, Brahms encountered the delight of fame and the dread of high expectations. The pressure all but stopped him before he could move on to larger-scale compositions than the piano works that had excited Schumann.
Part of the problem was that Brahms was such a harsh self-critic. He honed his material until he was satisfied and held himself to tough standards. Consider: He composed more than twenty— possibly as many as thirty—string quartets besides the three he published. (He burned the others.) Ultimately, through the fusion of hard work, reflection, and inspiration that makes for genius, Brahms recovered from Schumann’s prophecy and fulfilled his promise in songs and piano music and chamber works and choruses. He approached the orchestra more deliberately,
producing two serenades, a piano concerto, and his German Requiem before retreating exclusively into more intimate forms.
Meanwhile, the music world expected him to write a symphony. Come on, he said: “You have no idea what it’s like to hear the footsteps of a giant like that behind you”—the giant being Beethoven, whose echoing steps forced Brahms to question if he could ever do anything on a par with the author of nine symphonies that seemed to define the limits of what music could express.
But while Brahms was keeping the press at bay with his talk about the giant, he was busy trying to hear his own symphonic voice. When he was forty, he introduced the Variations on a Theme of Haydn. For all its generosity of spirit, this is an exercise in how to create and arrange sonic shapes. The Haydn Variations marked the first time in a decade Brahms had used the orchestra, and the first time in fifteen years—since his Serenade No. 1—that he had written a purely orchestral work for a sizable ensemble. The forty-five works between the serenade and the variations had established Brahms as one of Europe’s leading composers—and the leading composer among those who embraced the traditional ideals of abstract music as opposed to music drama and tone poems. Brahms’s First Symphony, fourteen years in the writing, was instantly recognized as the greatest symphony of the past half-century, since Beethoven’s Ninth had first been heard in 1824.
Brahms knew now that he could get it right. In less than a year he turned out a second symphony. A third symphony would follow the second in six years. During that interval, Brahms discovered the subtleties of orchestral language and his emotional range. These were the years of the Violin Concerto, the Academic Festival and Tragic overtures, and the Piano Concerto No. 2, a massive work that moved some listeners to call it a symphony with piano accompaniment. If his first two symphonies reveal Brahms exploring what he could do with an orchestra, the orchestral works that followed show him increasingly at ease as he knits his personal world- view into the fabric of sound. In these compositions, he consolidates his art. He becomes Johannes Brahms.
THE MUSIC The Third Symphony opens with two broad chords in a gesture repeated throughout the first movement. Here, at its initial appearance, the gesture is a deep inhalation before the music bursts into motion, muscles straining, momentum building. Then comes a passage that exhibits why Brahms’s music is often described as “autumnal”: the gentle second subject introduced by the winds and the little dance-like tune that grows out of it, stopping in its tracks when it encounters the brief song that ends this quiet interlude, two symmetrical phrases, poignant and resigned, before momentum resumes. The densely textured development conveys

a sense of great struggle, spelled by the respite of a deep-throated passage dominated by a solo horn, like sunlight filtered through haze, before the forces regroup and revisit the symphony’s opening paragraphs. As this recapitulation ends, new tensions are introduced, rising through a passage that climaxes in the consummation of F major, the key in which this all began. Dynamic levels recede and tensions relax in a magical denouement. The last sounds are a recollection of the movement’s opening, transformed now into a gesture not of defiance, but of serenity.
The opening of the Andante suggests a folk melody. A third of the way through, the tempo slows as winds and strings engage in a call-and-response, a gesture that will reappear with explosive force in the finale. The folk-like character returns, then the call-and-response, this time led by the strings, with the winds answering. This is prelude to a gently rocking passage that flows forward both in the high strings and the low, the low strings weaving their song in counterpoint to that of their higher voiced cousins in a way that sounds slightly out of synch, to produce one of those aching moments gone almost before you know it has started. After a reprise of the opening, the movement ends in a bittersweet coda and a recollection of the call-and-response.
The intermezzo captures a melancholy that seems the essence of this composer. The finale opens in nervous music for strings, their voices held low, first plotting, then nonchalant. Now the call-and-response from the Andante reappears. Catastrophe intervenes in a long passage of succeeding episodes, all rushing toward some end not yet visible. The music subsides—to be interrupted by great jabs from massed strings. These prepare a brass pronouncement that sounds like a summons to raise the dead: the call-and-response from the Andante, transformed into pure aggression. Again we hear the wrenching episodes from just moments before. This time, as the energy spends itself, a subdued glow fills the atmosphere, with strings at their softest pianissimo pulsating in a veil of sound. After a reticent recollection of the call-and-response, a passage heard half an hour earlier emerges from the veil. In its first appearance it was headstrong and defiant. Now it is mellow and restrained. It is the main theme of the opening movement, transformed by time and experience from a shout into a whisper: calm, reassuring, complete.—Larry Rothe
LISTEN AGAIN: Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (Decca)
Larry Rothe, former editor of the SFS program book, is author of Music for a City, Music for the World, a history of the San Francisco Symphony, and co-author of the essay collection For the Love of Music. Both books are available at the Symphony Store.

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