In May of 1883, Johannes Brahms invited a close friend of his to a “little small sad festival” to be attended by only four people. This was the way Brahms intended to celebrate his 50th birthday.
That summer, he wrote his Third Symphony:
When he was 20, Johannes Brahms met Robert and Clara Schumann and there was much prophesying about future greatness, most of which seemed to backfire. For one thing, if he was the heir to Beethoven, where was all this great music? Even though Robert had described his piano sonatas as “veiled symphonies” and Clara had told him, to succeed, he would need to compose symphonies, the symphony he began sketching shortly after Robert Schumann threw himself into the Rhine – an attempted suicide – in 1854 did not become what we know as his first symphony which was completed in 1876, 22 years later.
But he took his time, dealing with negative criticism and taunts from other contemporary composers like Liszt and Wagner. Brahms didn’t want to engage in the typical “on-the-job training” so many young composers have, producing immature works that will be forgotten and only incur further heckling from the crowd demanding proof he was, in fact, Beethoven’s musical heir.
Once that hurdle had been (finally) surpassed – Brahms was then 43 years old – he composed his 2nd Symphony in one summer the following year. The 3rd Symphony came along six summers later. It too was largely composed over one summer.
Brahms had become primarily a “summer composer,” going away to holiday spots (or spas, to be more exact) like Bad Ischl. The summer after his 50th birthday, he went to Wiesbaden, a spa-town on the Rhine.
His choice of location was not accidental.
Brahms had been born in the German city of Hamburg, a great port city on the Elbe River. When he visited the Schumanns, they lived in Düsseldorf, a city on the Rhine where Schumann had been the city’s “music director” and where he composed his 3rd Symphony, known as the “Rhenish.” It was the river he would shortly try to drown himself in.
The Rhine is also where Richard Wagner begins and ends his operatic cycle, The Ring of the Niebelung.
And Wagner, whom Brahms respected to a certain degree despite their rivalry, had just died in February, a few months before Brahms’ 50th birthday.
But the main reason Brahms chose Wiesbaden for his summer composing sojourn was one of its residents, a 26-year-old alto named Hermine Spiess (in some sources, her name is spelled Spies).
Brahms first heard her sing at a friend’s home that January and whatever their relationship was, Brahms found himself writing several songs inspired by that beautiful alto voice.
The first of his songs he’d heard her sing was the delightful, folkish “Vergebliches Ständchen” (which he’d heard her sing, that first meeting: a young man begs his sweetheart to let him in to say good night to her, but she laughs and shuts the window in his face – as Brahms joked after hearing Hermine sing it, “I’m sure she’d let him in!”)
Many of the songs he wrote for her, rather than being the traditional love-songs you might expect, were, despite his flirtations, about unrequited love, rejection or the anxiety of growing older (think “mid-life crisis” 1880s-style).
Her family lived in Wiesbaden. Brahms jokingly called Hermine his “Rhinemaiden” (after the seductive young water nymphs who initiate Wagner’s “Ring”) and also, after Shakespeare’s queen in “The Winter’s Tale,” as “Hermione-ohne-O” – Harmione without the O.
How much of Hermine is in the Third Symphony remains to be seen. Brahms’ non-vocal music was always abstract but there were often specific associations he might have had in mind when composing it, regardless of what it might mean as a “program,” the dreaded “what-the-music-is-about” question.
Certainly, lots of Brahms’ music makes covert references to Clara Schumann right down to his quoting or paraphrasing what Schumann himself called his “Clara Motive.” And then there’s his Farewell to Agathe von Siebold in his 2nd String Sextet, her name spelled out in musical pitches.
If there is anything referring to Hermione-ohne-O in the symphony he composed that summer, Brahms never hinted at it.
A more likely inspiration was his proximity to the River Rhine which might put a man officially in Middle Age reminiscing about the events of 30 years earlier and first met the Schumanns in a town on the Rhine. From the studio he rented on the hillside overlooking Wiesbaden, he could see the Rhine in the not great distance: did that bring to mind musical associations?
The opening theme of Brahms’ new symphony bears a strong resemblance to a passage from Schumann’s “Rhenish” Symphony, inspired by the very river that Brahms could see from his summer home.
Whatever Brahms may have thought was behind his new symphony, what secret meanings there might be inside the music, he was completely silent about it. But others saw in it specific references: Hans Richter, who would conduct the premiere, after referring to Brahms’ 2nd Symphony as his Pastoral, called this one “Brahms’ Eroica” after Beethoven’s 3rd. Clara Schumann heard “the mysterious charms of woods and forests [in the first movement]… worshippers kneeling about the little forest shrine.” Joseph Joachim, for whom he’d composed his Violin Concerto a few years earlier, said the finale brought to mind the Greek myth of Hero and Leander: “I cannot help imagining the bold, brave swimmer, his breast borne up by the waves and by the mighty passion before his eyes, heartily, heroically swimming on, to the end, to the end, in spite of the elements which storm around him.”