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Brahms Fest Symphony No. 3


Program Notes


FRI APR 14, 11 am

SAT APR 15, 8 pm

SIR ANDREW DAVIS conductor | ALESSIO BAX  pianist

BRAHMS (1809-1847)

Symphony No. 3 in F Major, Op. 90

Allegro con brio
Poco allegretto
Allegro. Un poco sostenuto



Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 83

Allegro non troppo
Allegro appassionato
Allegretto grazioso


Symphony No. 3 in F Major, Op. 90

• Born: May 7, 1833, Hamburg, Germany
• Died: April 3, 1897, Vienna
• Work composed: Summer of 1883
• Premiere: December 2, 1883, Hans Richter conducting the Vienna Philharmonic
• Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, strings
• CSO notable performances: 29 previous subscription weekends | Premiere: March 1897, Frank Van der Stucken conducting | Most recent: March 2012, Thierry Fischer conducting. Carnegie Hall: 1962, Max Rudolf conducting
• Duration: approx. 33 minutes

Brahms was a man of contradictions, the greatest of which was the conflict between his passionately romantic personality and his classically oriented intellect. He was a product of his times, which were the turbulent years of 19th-century romanticism. His early works, such as the First Piano Concerto, are filled with pessimism, triumph and a brooding bordering on sensationalism. These emotions were natural to the composer. Yet he had the intelligence to realize the underlying fallacy of romanticism: an overabundance of feeling can become maudlin and undisciplined.

Brahms strove mightily to distance himself from the romantic aesthetic, but he was too much a man of his cultural environment to make a complete break. He tried to achieve a measure of objectivity by involving himself with his musical heritage. He tried to counteract his innate romanticism with the understated balance of classicism. Thus, he necessarily had to come to grips with the legacy of Beethoven. He was remarkably successful in his attempt to reconstruct the symphonic values of Beethoven.

But the art of Brahms was just that—a reconstruction. He was not so much the inheritor of Beethoven’s titanic classicism as the reinterpreter of it. This fact does not detract from the stature of Brahms, who achieved his goal better than anyone else could have. But it does define the underlying tragedy of his creative existence. As musicologist Paul Henry Láng explains:

The very currents that stream backwards from Brahms surged forward in Beethoven. Since the times could no longer furnish him with the antitheses Beethoven once found, he could only conjure them up. And thus classicism became in him a beautiful gesture, whereas in Beethoven it was fulfillment and synthesis. His tragedy was that Beethoven’s shadow followed him everywhere.

Láng continues:

To him who carries the past in himself, the essence of conscientiousness is a faithfulness and a moral obligation to the past, for the dissension between past and present means new wounds and eternal remorse. This is at the basis of that extraordinary sensitiveness which made Brahms’ life the life of Hamlet, made him hesitant and chaste…, for he to whom every seemingly innocent action may become the source of new regrets shuts himself in and shuns action. If, however, he is enticed onto the field of action, he longs for solitude as the sick man for his bed. And he endeavors to live a blameless life, a life that can remain blameless only if others are not intimately involved in it. Thus Brahms remains a genius in the mask of a morose middle-class professional man.

All the other contradictions in Brahms the man and Brahms the composer stemmed from his desperate attempt to make his past less remote. Thus, there was the contradiction between the composer’s apparently genuine modesty, bordering on self-deprecation, and his equally genuine pride in his accomplishments. He wrote to a friend, for example, about the newly completed Third Symphony, a masterpiece that exudes self-confidence, “Wrap it daily in a cloth moistened with the best Rhine wine—and do whatever else one does for such dry products.”

Another contradiction was Brahms’ unwillingness to speak or write about himself in any but the most elliptical or obscure manner. He once wrote to his publisher Fritz Simrock, for example:

Only one thing is sure: soon I’ll not have a groschen of money left! Now, I am counting on the appreciation and gratitude of you and all your fellow publishers. You will pass around the hat and send me an eminent reward—because I leave you so nicely in peace and you need not run any risks for me.

Simrock, who knew his composer-friend well, immediately understood that Brahms was telling him about a newly completed major work, namely the Third Symphony.

Another contradiction: Brahms was a man of both politeness and rudeness. He was considerate enough to remove his shoes for fear of disturbing the lady living below him, yet he was rude enough to reply in kind to this question, asked of him just before a performance of the Third Symphony: “And where are you going to lead us tonight, Herr Doctor? To Heaven?” Brahms replied, “It is all the same to me where you go!” 

The contradiction between his gentle humor and naïve rudeness is illustrated by a remark made upon leaving a gathering of his friends: “If there is someone here whom I have neglected to insult, I apologize.”

One final contradiction: Brahms occasionally felt, despite his consistently high level of productivity, that he was too old to compose. At the age of 49, for example, he solemnly assured Simrock that he would never again write or publish a piece. The very next year saw the premiere and immediate success of the Third Symphony. 

After that premiere, which had been conducted by Hans Richter, there was competition among conductors for the right of second performance. Brahms entrusted his old friend Joseph Joachim with this honor. Hans von Bülow, not to be outdone, programmed the work second and fourth on a concert of five pieces played by his Meiningen Court Orchestra. The symphony was hailed at each new performance, and it made Brahms’ name as a symphonist resound as never before.

KEYNOTE. The work is the composer’s only cyclical symphony. The opening theme returns at the end “like a rainbow after a thunderstorm,” as Brahms’ biographer Karl Geiringer expresses it. Also, the second theme of the slow movement finds its way into the finale.

The introductory motive, F–A-flat–F, stands for Brahms’ motto frei aber froh, “free but happy.” He was in actuality neither free nor happy. Joachim’s motto frei aber einsam, “free but lonely,” came closer to the truth. But Brahms characteristically felt the need to say the opposite. He could not admit the tragedy that was his deep secret, that he was lonely, not happy, because of his isolation from his age and because only he fully realized the fatal fallacy of romanticism. He longed for the impossible return to an age of pure classicism. The Third Symphony does not disclose this tragedy. It hides behind its motto “free but happy.” Brahms did not write a programmatic piece, least of all one in which he revealed his darkest secret. He knew the futility of denying his age, and he admitted it with characteristic understatement, but he never let it become a part of his music:

That people in general do not understand and do not respect the greatest things, such as Mozart’s concertos, helps our kind to live and acquire renown. If they would only know that they are getting from us by drops what they could drink there to their hearts’ content!

The “free but happy” motive, which pervades the first movement, suggests conflict, since its notes imply the key of F minor while the symphony is actually in F major. Thus, when the beautifully lyrical second theme arrives in the clarinet in A major, the A-flat is replaced by the “correct” A-natural in the most definitive manner. Ironically, the happiness of this theme is increased by the way it contradicts the “free but happy” motive. The ultimate consequence of this motive is that much of the finale is cast in F minor. The coda, however, moves into the peaceful key of F major and closes with a beautiful reminiscence of the opening of the first movement.

—Jonathan D. Kramer


Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 83

Work composed: 1878–1881
• Premiere: November 27, 1881, Zürich, Hans von Bülow conducting, Brahms was soloist
• Instrumentation: solo piano, 2 flutes (incl. piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings
• CSO notable performances: 31 previous subscription weekends | Premiere: February 1896, Frank Van der Stucken conducting; Rafael Joseffy, pianist | Most recent: March 2013, Robert Treviño conducting, Yefim Bronfman, pianist. Other notable soloists: Van Cliburn, Claudio Arrau, Rudolf Serkin, Arthur Rubinstein
• Duration: approx. 46 minutes

Brahms fell heir to a golden opportunity in 1881. The distinguished conductor Hans von Bülow, who had been a champion of the music of the “other camp”—Wagner, Liszt, Bruckner—had recently come under the spell of Brahms’ music. Von Bülow, for reasons partly musical and partly personal, now threw his whole energies into the promotion of Brahms’ works. One result was that the conductor placed the Meiningen Orchestra at the composer’s disposal, not just for performances but also as a test laboratory for works in progress. Such an opportunity was (and still is) almost unheard of for a composer, and Brahms was quick to take advantage of von Bülow’s extraordinary generosity.

The composer moved to Meiningen in order to use the orchestra’s services while working on the Second Piano Concerto. Von Bülow and the Meiningen musicians gave the first performance with Brahms at the keyboard. Von Bülow’s enthusiasm for this music was great, and he arranged subsequent concert tours to bring the new work before audiences all over Europe.

Brahms thought of his new concerto with characteristic self-deprecation. He wrote to his friend Elisabeth von Herzogenberg, “I want to tell you that I have written a tiny little concerto with a tiny little scherzo. It is written in the key of B-flat major, and I fear that I have made too heavy and frequent a demand on this udder which has on many occasions provided such excellent milk.”

This “tiny little concerto” is probably the longest piano concerto in the standard literature. The “tiny little scherzo” is a fully developed movement between the first and slow movements. The number of movements is thus expanded to an atypical four.

KEYNOTE. A lot of nonsense has been written about the Second Concerto. Because it has four movements, many writers have placed it in the symphonic tradition, some even calling it a “symphony-concerto.” While it is true that its scope is symphonic, that it lacks a classical concerto’s cadenzas and that it does have a scherzo-like movement, it is based on concerto—not symphony—concepts throughout. The idea of dialogue, established at the outset with the piano answering the French horn, is the essence of the concerto genre.

Another unfounded idea about the B-flat Concerto is that it is a latter-day instance of classicism. While it is surely true that Brahms yearned to be a classicist and that he followed the model of Beethoven in many works, this concerto is not one of them. The titanic spirit of Beethoven may be felt lurking behind the Second Concerto, but his influence is far less pronounced than in many of Brahms’ other compositions. The B-flat Concerto is thoroughly romantic. Any gestures toward classicism are superficial. It is a large, often rhapsodic work, with many themes that appear at times loosely interwoven (the structure is not really as free as it seems, but the effect is decidedly rambling).

In fact, Brahms had originally indicated frequent slight changes of tempo, in the romantic manner, but he later deleted them because he felt performers might follow them too literally.
Another misconception about this concerto is that it is not a pianistic showpiece. While it is true that the tone of intimacy is never long absent, Brahms had sufficient craft to convey this intimacy within dazzling pianistic figuration. The piano writing is marvelously varied and extraordinarily difficult, and it often does show off the purely physical accomplishments of the soloist.

Commentators have sometimes accused Brahms of bland orchestration. This is an overstatement. His use of the orchestra is invariably clear and functional, and in some works quite colorful. But it is true that his orchestral palette in this concerto does not contain the inventive combinations of a Berlioz or a Mendelssohn. Brahms’ style of orchestration is perfectly suited to the ideas of the Second Piano Concerto, however. The piano writing is brilliant and varied, subtly nuanced and beautifully realized—in fact, the piano “orchestration” is quite marvelous. But even the most beautiful piano writing cannot compete for variety with the orchestra. By avoiding extremes of color in the orchestra, however, Brahms places the two forces—piano and orchestra—on equal footing. Each has a comparable range of colors. The result is a balanced dialogue of equals, an ideal approached in many concertos but rarely achieved as well as in this one.

The enormous first movement contains many themes, which are united by the simple three-note figure that opens the work. The second movement, the “added” scherzo, is full of Brahms’ usual rhythmic finesse. The slow movement continues the exploration of rhythmic irregularities, though in an understated manner—the six beats in a measure are sometimes grouped 3+3 and sometimes 2+2+2. The finale, with its Hungarian tunes and rhythms, comes closest to being an all-out fast movement, but even here the atmosphere of intimacy prevails.

After the not totally successful premiere of the far more overt First Piano Concerto, Brahms had said, “My second one will sound quite different.” Twenty-two years later he fulfilled his prophecy with a beautiful, tranquil, intimate, yet large and powerful, work very different from its passionate predecessor. The Second Piano Concerto deserves to be heard for what it is—a large romantic concerto for piano and orchestra. It is not a classical concerto, it is not a symphony with piano, and it is not a reincarnation of a Beethoven piano concerto. It is thoroughly Brahmsian, and it is a major work in the concerto literature, despite what the composer may have said about it being a modest effort.

—Jonathan D. Kramer