The surprising autobiographical context of Brahms’s Third Symphony

Posted on: October 24, 2012

Tuesday (10/23) on Slate, Jan Swafford writes, “In 1883, Johannes Brahms made another of his summer working sojourns in country towns and spas. … Much influenced by landscape in his work, he may have chosen this town for its setting: Wiesbaden on the Rhine. There he found a high airy studio looking toward the river and got to work on his Third Symphony. … To this day, Brahms is associated with the idea of abstract music, free of literary models, free of autobiography. But that’s not his doing; clearly a good deal of his music came out of his life.” The opening theme of the Third Symphony, Swafford writes, “is Robert Schumann’s, from the first movement of his Symphony No. 3. … Why? To answer that question we have to recall the most dramatic period in Brahms’ life. In Wiesbaden, when he looked out his window to the Rhine, he had to have thought of his friend Robert Schumann, who in a famous article written when Brahms was 20 and Schumann 43, proclaimed this young man to be the future of German music. There followed Robert’s suicide attempt in a fit of madness, his lockup in an asylum, and the helpless love Brahms came to feel for Robert’s wife Clara, one of the great pianists of her time. When Robert finally died in the asylum, Brahms fled Clara. He was not cut out for marriage, but she remained the love of his life. Those years of Robert’s mentoring, his madness, and death, and Brahms’ passion for Clara, remained in Brahms’ mind for the rest of his life.”

Posted October 24, 2012