Saturday, December 10, 2005


Brahms: Symphony No. 3, F major

In 1883, Brahms composed a third symphony, and began to sketch a fourth. The first of these, in F major, is the shortest of all his symphonies, but often seems the longest because of its heroic cast and grandiosity. A few attentive listenings to it should dispel forever the notion that Brahms is essentially a classical composer. It begins with a burst of romantic virtuosity, and is steeped throughout in an almost Schumannesque romanticism. In the first two movements, Brahms seems to be speaking in propria persona, a persuasive romantic poet uninhibited by any sense of duty to the great classic dead. The breathless flow of melodic beauty is nothing short of intoxicating, and momentarily, at least, we scarcely care that we are listening to a free fantasia rather than to a symphony. After these heroic draughts, the third and fourth movements are tepid and unadventurous. The skeleton in Brahms' closet is indeed neoclassicism---a very self-conscious neoclassicism---and its bones rattle throughout the andante and the allegro. In no other large work is the descent from mountain to plain made so rapidly. The idiom suddenly becomes harsh and monotonous, the melodic line studied. The whole symphony sags, and in trying to find distinction for this industrious classicizing Brahms descends to real ugliness in his orchestration. Had Richard Strauss concocted some of this, I should say that he was orchestrating a sandbank, and compliment him for doing so perfectly. The last half of the F major Symphony has given those critics who make a specialty of judging a composer by his lapses something to hold on to: from it, more than from anything else, has come Brahms' reputation as a harsh melodist and a muddy orchestrator.

Six years elapsed after the completion of the Second Symphony, before Brahms again applied himself to the the symphonic task. These six years were by no means idle ones, for during that period he created many of his most imposing works. The Third Symphony, in F major, Op.90, finished in 1883, differs notably from the two which preceded it; it offers "more" than the latter, in several respects: it is more scholarly---the first Movement presents an array of extremely ingenuous rhythmic metamorphosis, and the last Movement is a marvel of thematic manipulation; further it is more dramatic---the Finale, especially, contains passages of fierce passion, that seem even more gripping than the dramatic outbursts of the first Movement of the First Symphony; and it is more beautiful---the subordinate Theme of the first Movement is one of the most exquisite musical sentences ever conceived, and many episodes in the second and third Movements are of rare originality and artistic grace.

The first Movement, precisely as in the First and Second Symphonies, opens with a Basic Motive. To this, placed in different voices (first in the bass) and in altered rhythms, the melody of the principal Theme is counterpointed---with autocratic indifference to the "cross- relation" in the first mating. Thus the Motive constitutes the essential Basis of the Movement; but it is also used independently, with wonderful effect. The structural design is sonata-allegro, and two brief Codettas are added. The form is perfectly normal, and its treatment masterly in the highest degree. The final two Sections of the Development (leading into the Recapitulation) are of impressive beauty; and there is a climax of tremendous power in the second Section of the Coda, followed by gradual relaxation in the remaining Sections.

The second (slow) Movement conveys the impression of a Hymn, of four Lines of varying length, though rather of a secular than of a religious type. It is simple, and sedately graceful, but immeasurably remote from the commonplace; replete with ingenious touches that are as beautiful as they are original---a thoroughly lovable but also thoroughly aristocratic Movement. It is cast in the mold of the First Rondo-form. Each cadence measure of the principal Theme is filled out ("bridged over") with a sort of echo of the preceding phrase-member; also of note is the very great beauty of each one the three Sections of the Coda.

To the third Movement Brahms affixes no title. His strong predilection for the Absolute qualities of musical expression kept him aloof from any descriptive experiments, and from the use of music as anything but a language that has its own intrinsic meanings. And though he wrote a very large number of Songs that are wonderfully apt in their blending of the musical with the poetic ideas, they remain genuinely "absolute" music.

This third Movement is not a Minuet, much less a Scherzo, nor a "dance-form" in any sense of the term. It might answer to the title of Romanza, or Song without Words. The lovely melody, with its quaint rhythms, has tinge of that gloomy, pathetic mood which Brahms seems to have loved. The design is First-Rondo (or perhaps more correctly Song with Trio---the difference being often scarcely recognizable);

The last Movement is another of those exceedingly rare examples of a minor Finale to a major Symphony, as seen in the Italian Symphony of Mendelssohn. Here, however, the Coda returns to, and ends in, the major mode.

This Finale is long, many-hued, and of unparalleled mastership in conception and formulation. The preponderant mood is lofty passion; now subdued, and again almost unbridled in its wide and mighty sweep. But other moods temper this, in wise alternation: after the mysterious monody and weird duet in the opening measures, there follows (measures eighteen to twenty-nine) a heavy, ominous proclamation, led by the trombones, like a prophetic warning of the storm that breaks loose---lulls---bursts forth again, and seems to whip the elements into fury; then the amazingly jovial, almost roistering subordinate Theme, during which the preceding stormy motive grumbles on, much subdued in the bass; and finally, in the extremely beautiful Coda, the broad (rhythmically augmented) intonation of the first Phrase of the principal Theme, in major, rounded out, in the seventh and eighth measures, with the Basic Motive of the first Movement, and joined ultimately (as a direct consequence of the Basic Motive) by the principal motive of the first Movement, in such natural sequence that this Finale closes almost precisely as did the opening Movement. All this is recorded, with astounding ingenuity, and equally astounding technical mastery, in the Finale---and much more than this, which the observant listener may ferret out for himself. The structural design corresponds very nearly to that of the Finale of the First Symphony: there is no separate Development; the Recapitulation follows the Exposition immediately, and each one of its successive factors is "developed" in the corresponding order---up to the reappearance of the subordinate Theme, whereupon the "recapitulation" continues almost literally. The opening melody is not ingratiating, nor even inviting, on a first hearing; but the choice of that aspect for a theme is one test of Genius---the rough, forbidding, uncut diamond is skillfully fashioned into a resplendent gem.


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