Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Reading Brahms's 3rd

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) was one of the great originals of the Romantic period. Fiercely independent and innovative, with such a distinctive musical palette that his music is instantly recognizable as his own, he was also - at the same time - a prey to criticism for his conservatism, because he continued to use musical forms (such as fugue, passacaglia, sonata, and the symphony itself) which, at the time, were considered old-fashioned and elitist. He made these forms his own, instilling them with his own blend of asymmetrical rhythms and passionate melodies, a broader sense of tonality and harmonic function (parallel to, but independent of, Chopin's), and a warm-hearted insight into the human soul. He wrote in nearly every genre except opera. And each of his four symphonies is a masterpiece.

Brahms wrote his 3rd Symphony in F during the summer of 1883, when he was 50 years old. He had a late start as a symphonist, due in part to feelings of insecurity about walking in Beethoven's shadow. Nevertheless, from the first page of his first symphony onward, he showed himself a mature artist with a firm grasp of the form. In my opinion, the third is Brahms' most accessible symphony, with a clarity, simplicity, and tautness unrivaled by the other three. Perhaps I say this simply because it was the first Brahms symphony I heard and learned to love. It speaks to me very directly, in the language of an intimate old friend.

From the first two chords of Movement I, Brahms begins stretching our concept of the way harmonies relate to each other within the world of functional tonality. The tools he uses to do this include harmonic progressions by thirds (as opposed to the traditional fourths), dithering between major and minor versions of the same chord, and changes of rhythm and metre.

After those first two chords, Movement I proceeds with a plunging first theme exploding with energy and passion. This leads to more peaceful and gentle ideas, and then another dramatic passage in which Brahms combines bits and pieces of his rich variety of themes. The exposition's secondary tonal area, instead of the usual Dominant (in this case, C), is A major (which is tonally quite remote from F); the section ends in a dark, stormy, minor-key mood which continues into the development. The passion finally dissipates in a slow, soft horn passage, leading to some development of the plunging first theme. Those opening chords are often in the background, also in the coda, which briefly threatens to turn into another development section before an unexpectedly soft ending.

Movement II is a slow movement in ABA form, which opens with an apparent conflict between winds and strings. The winds seem to want to play a cheerful, bucolic tune, but the strings continually interrupt with something mysterious and vaguely threatening. Eventually the whole orchestra comes together to let the woodwind theme open up like a beautiful flower, a moment of joy quickly dampened by the strings' determination to brood. The B section is more somber, with a consoling second idea introduced by the strings. An abstract bridge passage leads to some variations on the A theme, and another abstract bridge leading, this time, to a gentle, poignant coda.

Brahms's third movements tend to fall into a pattern better described by the word "Intermezzo" than "Scherzo." Neither dancelike nor flash-and-dazzle, Movement III of Brahms's 3rd is basically another ABA movement, only not so slow as Movement II. The material of the outer sections sounds like a soulful, melancholy serenade, poured out beneath a window whose owner gives her suitor no encouragement whatsoever. The trio, or B section, has a syncopated feel to it, but only adds a little extra energy to the overall tenderness of the movement. The A section then returns with some changes, chiefly in instrumentation (e.g. the melody solos out the horn, oboe, and clarinet in turn), and the closing phrases lightly allude to the trio.

Brahms's 3rd shares with Mendelssohn's 4th the distinction of ending a major-key symphony with a minor-key movement. This Movement IV, however, isn't a rollicking saltarello that dares you to forget that it's in a minor key. This Movement IV is a brooding, misanthropic creature that occasionally lets fly with loud, angry outbursts. Its passion and drama are scarcely dampened by the appearance of a game second theme that begins with a little hop, or catch of the breath. The development builds fragments of first-group material to a colossal climax before a truncated recap, beginning with the second theme, brings the movement round to another surprisingly soft and peaceful ending.

Brahms's 3rd Symphony was quite well-received in its time - except for some futuristic fanatics who despised Brahms for what they regarded as counter-revolutionary tendencies. More recently, it has been overshadowed by his other three symphonies, which are longer and/or more flamboyantly idiosyncratic. Not the least of its drawbacks, in terms of box office appeal, is the way all four movements of the F Major Symphony end: softly. But if your mind is open to a deviation from the general run of symphonies with loud, emphatic, closing chords, you might find something meaningful and even moving about the calm, quiet assurance that follows the great questions, soul-searching, and stormy passions of this symphony. You might even discover that this symphony's way of confiding, rather than preaching or arguing, makes it the type of piece you return to again and again...like visiting an old friend.

IMAGES: Brahms (not Dumbledore); a watercolor of Brahms's study; a cartoon of Brahms (not Hitchcock) going to his favorite pub, called the "Red Hedgehog"; and Brahms' library. You gotta love a guy who loved books! EDIT: And here, played by God Knows Whom, is a lovely rendition of the third movement:

1 comment:

Robbie F. said...

Egads. Now I'm getting spam through the comments on my blog. You can run, but you can't hide!