Love Story: Clara Schumann & Johannes Brahms

The Inner Voice: A Second Violinist’s Notes, by Jeffrey Wall


Johannes Brahms (1833-1897): Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn, Op.56a

"May not be exactly as illustrated".  This disclaimer appears in advertising flyers for all kinds of merchandise and it could equally be applied to many items in the musical marketplace.  Haydn's Toy Symphony, for example, is not by Haydn, but by Leopold Mozart; similarly, his famous Serenade for string quartet is really Romanus Hofstetter’s only hit.  And Brahms' Variations on a Theme by Haydn are actually his Variations on a Theme Not by Haydn. No wonder we have “truth in advertising” legislation.

Well, Brahms thought the theme was by Haydn.  Designated St. Anthony's Chorale in the manuscript of Haydn’s Divertimento in B flat, Brahms immediately copied it upon seeing the score.  It has since been determined that it was actually borrowed for the divertimento; the tune isn’t by St. Anthony, either, and furthermore, the rest of the piece may not be by Haydn.  Some scholars think it’s actually the work of his pupil Ignaz Pleyel

Where do you go to complain?

    Whatever—the theme's unusual structure is what caught Brahms' attention.  Western music commonly breaks down into regular two- or four-bar units, compounded to make regular 8-bar phrases.  However, the Chorale’s first section combines two five-bar units into a 10-bar phrase. It’s repeated. The second section (also repeated) begins with a regular 8-bar phrase but ends with an 11-bar construction of 4 + 2 + 2 + 3.  Yet it all sounds quite natural.

Brahms’ orchestral music is such a prominent component of the concert repertory that it is easy to forget that it comprises a relatively small part of his output.  Accompaniments to several choral works aside, he had not written for orchestra in 14 years when in 1873 he orchestrated his new Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn for Two Pianos, a step toward finishing his long-awaited First Symphony.  In keeping with the Classical source of his theme Brahms scored them for a Beethoven-size ensemble, producing the first independent set of orchestral variations and pointing the way for Dvořák, Elgar and many others.

Eight variations and a Finale follow the statement of the chorale, although tonight only Variations V, VII and the Finale will follow the theme.  

While late-eighteenth-century restraint and formal balance are central to Brahms’ conception, his harmony is of the nineteenth century, and he had a particular love of the cross-rhythm of triplets against even eighth notes, displayed in the scherzo-like fifth variation.  He also casts an ear toward the Baroque: Variation VII is in the slow 6/8 rhythm of a siciliano, a dance from the time of Bach, while the Finale is a passacaglia: sixteen variations pass over a recurring bass line derived from the theme, into which it dissolves for the final jubilant restatement.  With this Brahms unknowingly extended his prep work to the very end of his symphonic output: the Finale of his Fourth and final symphony would be a passacaglia on an even greater scale.

Brahms: Symphony No.3 in F major, Op.90

    Brahms’ Symphony No.3 represents a considerable challenge for conductors.  Of his symphonies it is the only one to end on a peaceful, exalted note (in fact, all four of its movements end quietly).  This makes it difficult—if not impossible—to score the satisfying concluding ovation that Brahms’ other three symphonies evoke.  But the Third is so manifestly a major work that it also defies placement in the first half of a programme: what can follow it that is not anticlimactic?  So, his No.3 is the least performed of the four.

    The Third also represents a considerable challenge for annotators, because apart from the date and location of its composition sweet nothing is known of its genesis and inspiration.  This makes it difficult—if not impossible—to provide the kind of entertaining and informative squib so beloved of the scribe and the tiny minority of concertgoers who read him, prompting refuge in colourful if groundless speculation or the dreaded Analysis with Musical Examples.  So, programme notes to the Third Symphony tend to be among the least interesting in the writer’s collected effusions. You have been warned.

    After attending performances of his Second Symphony and Piano Concerto No.2 at the Lower Rhine Music Festival in May 1883, Brahms stopped to visit friends in the Rhineland town of Wiesbaden.  The company was congenial and the composer took a cottage overlooking the river and the town for the summer. He had said nothing of a new symphony—possibly (remember, you were warned!) hearing the recent performance of the Second, now six years old, provided an impetus; perhaps the death of his arch-rival Wagner the previous February was a reason to assert his pre-eminence among living German composers—no matter, the composition was done by October, when back in Vienna Brahms played the outer movements to his Czech disciple Dvořák.

    “I say without exaggeration that this work surpasses his first two symphonies,” wrote Dvořák to the publisher Simrock, “if not, perhaps, in grandeur and powerful conception—then certainly in—beauty.  There is a mood in it which one does not often find in Brahms! What magnificent melodies are there for the finding! It is full of love, and it makes one’s heart melt…this work redounds to the glory of art….”

    Dvořák’s reference to love had been made without hearing the second movement, but it nonetheless stimulated some writers to suggest a connection between the Third Symphony and an acquaintance Brahms had formed with a young contralto named Hermine Spies earlier in the year which continued in Wiesbaden.  The fifty-year-old composer was certainly enamoured of her voice, for he wrote several wonderful songs for her, but on the evidence (or lack of it) he seems to have enjoyed her company without considering anything more serious.

    However, it might not be too farfetched to say that another love played a large part in the symphony’s creation: that which he bore for Robert Schumann and his wife Clara.  In 1892, thirty-eight years after Schumann’s death, Brahms could still write to Clara: “Let me repeat to you today that you and your husband constitute the most beautiful experience of my life, and represent all that is richest and most noble in it…”.  Brahms’ contemplation of the river Rhine in 1883 must have summoned memories of 1854, when Schumann tried to drown himself in it. In writing the Third Symphony while overlooking that same Rhine he clearly recalled his former mentor’s like-numbered symphony, titled the Rhenish: the jagged opening theme of Brahms’ work (which serves also to end it) quotes a passage from that last-written symphony of Schumann’s.

This theme is introduced by two dramatic chords containing the musical cipher F-A flat-F, which some have interpreted to represent a motto adopted by the younger Brahms—“Frei aber froh” (“Free but happy”)—avowing his bachelorhood (so much for Hermine’s influence).  This unifying figure appears throughout the symphony. Yet while the heroic opening is as close as Brahms ever got to standing on the prow of a ship under full sail with his beard streaming behind, most of the thematic material in this movement is quite dance-like, and it is no wonder Dvořák found it appealing.

    The Andante presents an idyllic melody in the clarinet, and rises in its coda to an aching peak, but it is even more remarkable for the way it treats the subsidiary theme that follows that first melody, beginning with two carefully placed chords: these are many times repeated in changing instrumental colours and registers.

   With the Poco allegretto Brahms’ Rhenish musings darken: no jocular scherzo here, only an unexpected minor key lament with brief passages of consolation.  And in the finale, the anger simmering in the earlier movements breaks out—notwithstanding attempts by the horns, those quintessentially Rhenish instruments, to cheer things up.  The gut-wrenching shift from major to minor at the end of the stormy development almost anticipates Dylan Thomas’s “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” But this is Brahms’ Third Symphony, not his Fourth: the composer was not quite ready for such unresolved tension—his fury collapses, he makes peace with his Rhenish memories, and the benignly shimmering surface of the water again conceals its depths.

© Jeffrey Wall, 2019