In May 1883, Johannes Brahms left Vienna for the spa town of Wiesbaden, in the Rhinegau, to spend his summer in a villa close to the Taunus mountains. He was 50 years old, a landmark birthday he had celebrated that month with his long-standing friends Theodore Billroth, Eduard Hanslick and Arthur Faber. The only bachelor in the group, Brahms was not yet the portly figure captured in Otto Böhler's 'red hedgehog' silhouette of 1990. But neither was he the handsome, awkward young man whose character and music had fascinated Robert and Clara Schumann. 'I'm leading a charmed life here, almost as though I were trying to emulate Wagner!", he wrote to Billroth from Wiesbaden, "The place was originally built as a studio but was later turned into the most delightful of country houses, and a studio like this one provides a wonderfully high, cool and airy room!'
Wagner had died three months earlier. Brahms halted the rehearsal he was conducting of Gesang der Parzen as a mark of respect, though he had been repelled by Wagner's anti-Semitism and his sarcastic reaction to the destruction of the Ringtheater, which had burned down in 1881, killing hundreds of its largely Jewish audience. Brahms, liberal by nature and conservative only in his rigorous study of baroque form from Schütz motets to Couperin suites, had many close friends who were Jewish in an increasingly divided Vienna. These divisions were felt even in the summer resorts in the 1880s, a decade scarred by pogroms in the Russian Empire. For Jewish Vienna, Bad Ischl became the preferred destination. When Brahms spent the summer of 1889 there, as he had in in 1880 and 1882, Daniel Spitzer, a Jewish satirist in his circle, noted that the composer who had previously 'travelled in Jewish circles every now and then' now appeared to prefer the company of Jews to the rest of society. From 1889 to 1896, his last summer, Brahms returned annually, as Vienna buckled under the strain of extreme conservatism and extreme radicalism, both artistically and politically.
The death of Wagner did not mean the death of Wagnerism, nor did it quell the anti-Brahms sentiments of his admirers. At the December premiere of the symphony Brahms wrote in Wiesbaden, Wagner-Bruckner partisans hissed after each movement. The rumour that his surname was a contraction of Abrahamson resurfaced in 1933, igniting a debate that saw Wilhelm Furtwängler give an address contrasting Brahms's German authenticity with the 'artificiality' of Mahler (later reworked as 'Brahms and the Crisis of our Time') and Arnold Schoenberg, a Viennese Jew who had converted to Lutheranism as a teenager and reconverted to Judaism in Paris in 1933, deliver a lecture in which he argued that Brahms was an innovator (published fourteen years later as 'Brahms the Progessive'). It is hard to swallow this argument when you consider that only two years separate Brahms's Fourth Symphony from the star-burst of Mahler's First. Yet Schoenberg and Furtwängler had both, from diametrically opposed agendas, highlighted the very quality in Brahms's music that Wagner detested, its purity. His music, 'not merely great but very good' in the British composer Hugh Wood's clever assessment, revealed 'no conflict between technique and expressiveness'.
That expressive and technical security was hard-won. Devastated by the reception of his first Piano Concerto, and crippled by Schumann's premature praise, Brahms was forty-three before he completed his First Symphony, quickly dubbed 'Beethoven's Tenth'. Seven years later, his Third was re-titled with similar haste. To the conductor Hans Richter, it was Brahms's 'Eroica'; to Brahms's friend and biographer Max Kalbeck, his 'Germania'. Clara Schumann heard an enchanted forest in the music. More recently, musicologist Susan McClary identified the masculinity of Indiana Jones, Strauss's Don Juan and Liszt's Faust in the score, while Brahms scholar David Brodbeck found a reference to the Venusberg music of Tannhäuser. Could the Third be Brahms's 'Wagner Symphony'?
The location of its composition and its close resemblance to the intoxicated virility of Schumann's Symphony in E flat suggest the Third might be Brahms's 'Rhenish', though since Brahms himself said that its opening theme was based on a Berchtesgaden juchezer, it could be his 'Alpine'. Or it could be something more private, perhaps a self-portrait of a bachelor in middle-age. Brahms, who had fallen in love with Clara Schumann only to retreat at the moment when they were free to be together, and who repeated the same pattern more concisely with Agathe von Siebold in 1859, still relished female company. While his physical needs were met by the prostitutes of Vienna, his romantic needs remained unsatisfied. Think again of Böhler's hedgehog silhouette. Think of the cartoon of Hanslick wafting incense from a thurible at the feet of a statue of "Holy Johannes". In 1890, when both images were created, Brahms was only fifty-seven.
By the summer of 1883, Brahms's beard was already greying, a handy disguise (or defence) for a restless heart. Wiesbaden delivered more than a picturesque landscape and a quiet studio in which he could sip coffee, finger the quills he still preferred to write with, smoke his cigars. It delivered the young contralto Herminie Spies, who sang the Alto Rhapsody, Brahms's baleful wedding gift to Julie Schumann, under the composer in Koblenz that July, and twice more in the following year. Herminie's career, then just beginning, would become indelibly associated with Brahms, though she angrily refuted a friend's suggestion that he was in love with her in a letter: "I absolutely refuse to accept that responsibility. I wouldn't know at all how to behave in that case... He doesn't know how small I feel intellectually compare to him." Brahms, meanwhile, made teasing references to 'little Herminie' (Herminchen) in his correspondence with the poet Klaus Groth, dedicating the songs Wie melodien zieht es mir leise durch den Sinn and Komm bald to her. Having premiered Heimkehr, Bitterer zu sagen, O liebliche Wangen, Der Uberläufer, Der Jäger, Vorschneller Schwur, Immer leiser wird mein Schlummer and Mädchenlied in her short career, she married a judge, Walter Hardtmuth, in 1892, and died the following year after giving birth, most likely of puerperal fever.
Herminie Spies was not the only pretty girl in Wiesbaden. Leontine Chledowska, who kept a bundle of letters from Brahms until her death in 1955, claimed to have met him there that summer and said that he had wanted to marry her, although there is no other evidence of this attachment.
Whichever young woman had caught the attention of the fifty year-old composer, there is a striking intimacy to the Third Symphony. The vaulting Allegro non troppo, the bosky Andante, the exquisite Poco allegretto and the urgent finale with its sudden swerves of light and shade all end at a low dynamic, the first three marked piano, the last marked pianissimo, a mere breath. Regardless of the masculinity that McClary hears in this work, these are feminine endings, delicately and precisely perfumed.
More compact than the symphonies that preceded it or the one that followed it, Brahms's Third is also more human. There is valour, playfulness, girlish sweetness, agitato passion and extreme sadness in the first movement, which resumes its heroic stance via a sequence of chaste suspensions from the horns, as though stepping back from full disclosure.
In the Andante, the carefree and the careworn are contrasted then spun together in cross-rhythms as delirious as a kiss, while the melody of the Poco allegretto is as seductive as any of Brahms's love songs. Even the athletic final movement, with its stern triplet rhythms, its highly charged staccato figures for choirs of woodwind and brass, and its scorching sforzandi, dissolves into tenderness with a phrase for muted violas, the belated tranquility of its final section tinged with regret.
Of Brahms's associates, the one who recognised most keenly the special qualities of the Third Symphony was his Bohemian protégé, Antonin Dvořák, whose own music is suffused with a similar tenderness. In October 1883, Dvořák wrote a letter to the publisher Fritz Simrock: "I was in Vienna some days ago where I spent some lovely days with Dr Brahms who had just come back from Wiesbaden. I have never seen him in such a happy mood. My wish to hear something from his new Symphony he granted at once. I say, and I am not exaggerating, that this work surpasses both his earlier Symphonies, if not perhaps in greatness and monumentality of expression, than certainly in beauty! In it there is a mood which you will not find so often in Brahms. What lovely melodies are there! It is pure love, and on hearing it your heart melts within you." Whether that love was for Herminie Spies, for the foothills of the Taunus or simply for the discipline and joy of the symphonic tradition, we cannot know.