Brahms – Symphony 3 (1888) – The Personal in the Abstract

Brahms’s third symphony. In the middle of July I listened, after many years’ hiatus, to Toscanini’s recording. I picked out much more than I’d really ever noticed was there. Having the score helped, but the interpretation was the thing.

Jan Swafford: Johannes Brahms

Jan Swafford: Johannes Brahms

After the last cadence, I thought how hopeless it is to write in words about music, especially abstract music. I thought back to Jan Swafford’s remarkable biography that I found in Williamsburg, Virginia, in 2007, and, which, amongst much else, relates Brahms’s lifelong love for Clara Schumann. And the next morning, going through Swafford’s online notes on the symphony, discovered that the symphony’s opening theme is borrowed from Schumann’s third symphony, which deals of the Rhine, in which Schumann suicided, and nearby which Brahms composed this third symphony.

Brahms, Symphony 3, beginning

Brahms, Symphony 3, beginning

The Rhine is also central to Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung. But, even more interestingly, the opening theme, in the symphony’s last pages, is expressed as a reminiscence of the opening theme of Beethoven’s piano sonata, Les Adieux, from which the main theme of the first movement of Mahler’s ninth symphony is derived.

Beethoven, Piano Sonata 26, Op. 81a,

Beethoven, Piano Sonata 26, Op. 81a, “Les Adieux,” beginning

Gustav Mahler, Symphony 9. opening

Gustav Mahler, Symphony 9. opening

Perhaps it all a sort of aesthetic accident, but I think not. I first saw and heard Wagner’s inexhaustible tetralogy, The Ring of the Nibelung, in Seattle, when I first lived in Vancouver; and Mahler’s masterful ninth symphony is in my mind irrevocably associated with several places and times, but especially the aspect of the Pacific Ocean from Vancouver’s Stanley Park Seawall.

Strait of Georgia, from the Stanley Park Seawall, Vancouver, Canada. 7 May 2015. (Photo: Hendrik Slegtenhorst)

Strait of Georgia, from the Stanley Park Seawall, Vancouver, Canada. 7 May 2015. (Photo: Hendrik Slegtenhorst)

I have wondered about what seem to be coincidences, but lately less so: is it that aesthetic ability improves with practice over time, or that there are interconnections that are intrinsic to, innate in, great art? Or that the way through is seen better after study that leads to improved appreciation, or that place has an animus that assists understanding?

Or that, when we reflect, and leave aside the noise, loud or silent, of bluster, there is more in common to all of us than we notice?

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One thought on “Brahms – Symphony 3 (1888) – The Personal in the Abstract

  1. Wow I had not realised about the connection between the opening theme of das Lebewohl sonata and the main theme of the 1st movement of Mahler 9. Makes perfect sense though in terms of the symphony. Thanks for sharing!

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