For some reason that I’m not quite sure of, I’ve never warmed much to Brahms’s Third Symphony (F major, op. 90). I’ve listened to it more in this last week — as I write this, I’m hearing it for the fourth time — than I have in the previous, oh, thirty years. I don’t know why this is, and listening to the work now with older ears, I’m even less sure why this work has never moved me the way the First, Second, or Fourth have. The Third is…well, it’s everything I expect to hear from Brahms, with moments of melancholy directly tucked amidst moments of lyrical charm. The Third is the most meditative of Brahms’s symphonies, with the least amount of sheer bombast, which is saying something because if Brahms is anything at all, he is very careful about how he uses bombast. Bombastic moments in Brahms are usually brief and they’re always well-earned. This particular symphony doesn’t have much bombast at all. Maybe that’s why it took me so long to warm to it; in my music-listening youth, I had that youthful way of gravitating toward bombast. But I don’t think that’s it, really. For every moment of Berliozian fire I’ve ever loved, there’s a moment of Mozartean simplicity that I adore just as much, and to this day, one of my favorite memories of live music is hearing Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, back in the late 80s, and there you have a piece with no bombast at all.
Who knows. I’m probably overthinking it. No work of art speaks to everyone, and some works can’t speak to us when we’re in certain parts of our life. But when we come to another time, years later, perhaps we find something to love in a book, or a movie that we never liked before, or…a symphony.
So anyway! Brahms’s Third. Again, conquering the First over a period of fifteen years seems to have allowed Brahms to make his piece with the symphonic form, as again he managed to write this work in a single summer, revising it a bit after the initial performances. Apparently some partisans of Richard Wagner — with whom Brahms had a long rivalry, as it became clear that Wagner and Brahms were the two towering forces in the Germanic music tradition in the late 1800s — tried to interfere with the performance, and duels were threatened. It may seem quaint, now, to look back on all the times classical music was at the heart of violence (would anyone ever riot at a Buffalo Philharmonic performance?), but only a little more than a century ago, this stuff was a big cultural deal.
Here’s a fascinating article about the Third, which examines the work in the light of Brahms’s friendship with Robert Schumann and his lifelong, unrequited love for his best friend’s wife, Clara.
And here is the symphony itself. I’m glad to be able to hear it with better ears.
Next week, the Fourth and final of Brahms’s symphonies.