This all Brahms concert features the composer’s beautiful Symphony No. 3, said to have influences of Beethoven, Schumann and Wagner. His first piano concerto, performed by Geoffrey Duce, came about after failed attempts at creating his first symphony. Those initial sketches instead became a musical tribute to his mentor, Robert Schumann.
(b. May 7, 1833 in Hamburg, d. April 3, 1897 in Vienna)
Ambitious but shy, the twenty-year-old Brahms called on musical icons Robert and Clara Schumann in 1853. Robert was immediately unstinting in his praise and put it in print in Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, a critical journal. For someone who was a merciless self-critic and who ultimately destroyed much of his earliest work, the praise must have made him ecstatic but also had to have been an unwelcome burden.
Madness caused by late-stage syphilis drove Robert into an asylum in 1854, a terrible blow to young Brahms. But he turned to Clara whom he adored as a sounding board for his new musical ideas. Although some of them finally became the first movement of Concerto No. 1, Brahms first thought he was showing Clara bits of a symphony, but soon he rejected that idea in favor of a sonata for two pianos.
Robert died in 1856 and still two more years elapsed until Piano Concerto No. 1 was finished. The music that resulted was the sweet of the support he received from Clara and the bitter of losing Robert, but his most significant work to date was finished.
Four years is nothing compared to the legendary gestation of his first symphony. Always ready to work and rework what did not suit him, he had those sketches in 1854 but didn’t finish the first symphony until 1876. Fortunately it was a success and the affirmation buoyed Brahms to complete the second symphony quickly. It was relatively serene and uncomplicated, but was received more diffidently.
Large works, his violin concerto and the second piano concerto, came before he returned to the symphony, finishing his third in 1883 and the fourth in 1885. The last major work using full orchestra that he completed was his concerto for violin and cello in 1887. Working on his fifth symphony in 1890, he abruptly decided to stop composing and tie up loose ends. Although he relented and returned to composing, his remaining output was all smaller and more intimate works.
If Brahms’ oeuvre were a single composition, it would be easy to describe tonight’s pieces as complementary movements in a long and brilliant work with obvious symmetries. After early works for chamber ensembles and piano that seem like an introduction, his first concerto was the full-throated exposition of his first movement. The third symphony was the confident beginning of his last. The first concerto’s endings are flamboyant; the third symphony’s endings, all gentle. Even the keys of both pieces, D minor and its relative major F, both with a key-signature of a one flat, complement one another. Minor mode early with its stormy implications, major mode, decades later, with resolution. The works after 1890 complete a comforting denouement.
Symphony No. 3 in F major, Op. 90
One may wonder why Brahms didn’t return to the symphony form sooner. Or alternatively why he returned to it at all. The answer is that his third symphony was a uniquely inspired work that, especially by his standards, he completed with dizzying speed. Underscoring the urgent nature of his inspiration, he sought quarters in Wiesbaden right where he was traveling, canceling other plans, and finished it in four short months over the summer of 1883. Yet Brahms remained true to himself: After each performance beginning with the December 1883 premiere, Brahms tweaked details until it was published in May 1884.
It is a credit to the Viennese audience that Symphony No. 3 was better received than Symphony No. 2, because months later at the Boston premiere several hundred people walked out. To us with modern ears that seems very odd, but in the work Brahms challenged both orchestras and audiences of the time. It is a piece with no wasted motion and intricately interrelated parts. The rising notes at the top of the first three chords, F – A-flat – F, are a motif that floods all the movements in one form or another. From a harmony perspective, lowering A to A-flat is what makes an F-major chord into an F-minor chord. Right away, the gauntlet is thrown down: Is it major? Or minor? Quixotic quicksilver changes gave a 19th century audience quite a workout. And if they expected a grand ending, they received a fourfold surprise—unique in 19th century symphonies—as every movement came to a quiet close.
It was also known to many Viennese that FAF was an acronym for a motto associated with Brahms: Frei aber froh (Free but happy). The motto befitted a bachelor of 50 years and it was an answer to Brahms’ friend and violinist Joseph Joachim’s motto, Frei aber einsam (Free but lonely). Finally, Brahms and his audiences shared the knowledge that Robert Schumann loved note-spelling of hidden messages, like his repeated use of multiple musical spellings representing ASCH in Carnaval, Op. 9. Embracing an extramusical association, Brahms obviously intended an homage to both of his lost friends.
Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15
With the concerto finished, Brahms played the solo part in a private performance in 1858 and again in its public premiere in Hanover in January 1859. It was well-received, although a second performance in Leipzig a few days later was not. Brahms tinkered a bit, but the piece survived much as he first wrote it, a credit to both the intelligent support he’d received from Clara and the deep authentic emotions he’d felt in knowing both Schumanns.
The first movement begins with seething rage at the unfairness of life. How could a new friendship be cut short so cruelly? Interestingly the first harmony over the ferocious octaves D is a B-flat chord, the relative major to D minor. The ambiguities of major and minor were Brahms stock-in-trade from beginning to end. The gentle sections may be grief. Or love. Or both.
The slow movement must be for Clara. No one knows for sure whether their relationship was always platonic, but the love at this time and place was real and deep.
The finale is for Brahms himself, a triumph-song for a masterwork by a newly-minted master composer. There would be no going back.
Scottish pianist Geoffrey Duce has performed throughout Europe, in the USA, Japan and Hong Kong. As a concerto soloist he has appeared with the Sinfonie Orchester Berlin in the Berlin Philharmonie, as well as with the New York Sinfonietta, the Scottish Sinfonia, the Edinburgh Philharmonic, and the Olympia Symphony Orchestra.
Mr. Duce has also performed in London’s Wigmore Hall, New York’s Carnegie Hall, Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall and in Edinburgh’s Queen’s Hall. He won the Young Artists Award from Britain’s National Federation of Music Societies, and was awarded the Prix de Piano at the American Conservatory in Fontainebleau, France. Also in demand as a chamber musician and accompanist, he has recorded for BBC Radio 3 and Hong Kong Radio, and has performed in Berlin’s Konzerthaus and at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. He has given masterclasses at institutions in the USA, including at Hawaii University, Shorter College, Georgia, the Academy of Music Northwest in Seattle and in the Middle East.
Geoffrey initially studied at the Royal Northern College of Music and Manchester University, before receiving a DAAD scholarship to the Universität der Künste, Berlin. He completed his doctorate at the Manhattan School of Music, New York, where he was also a faculty member, and taught at SUNY (State University of New York). He is currently Assistant Professor of Music at Indiana University South Bend.
Excerpt from 2008 Berlin Philharmoniker performance of Brahms Symphony No. 3
Chamber Orchestra of Europe 2011 performance of Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1