Brahms composed the bulk of the Third Symphony in the summer months of 1883, though perhaps he made use of sketches from an earlier time; thus it falls between the Second Piano Concerto (completed in 1881) and the Fourth Symphony (1884–85).The orchestral works of the 1880s reflect Hans von Bulow’s offer to have his orchestra at Meiningen—one of Europe’s most accomplished—read Brahms’s new compositions in informal surroundings.Brahms profited greatly from this unusual opportunity to work privately with a fine ensemble, both for work in progress and with ideas fo
The wonderful melodies, matchless solo work in woodwind and brass—the glorious horn solo at the end of the first movement—and such persuasive architecture as pairing the sprawled, mysterious second movement with a brief and gentle third: all these things help make Brahms’s Second Symphony perfect. It is the largest of his four essays in the genre and easily the loveliest.
Brahms’s notion of death is in the Protestant Christian mold: an occasion for comfort to the bereaved and for rejoicing in the certainty of Paradise. There is no place for a Catholic Dies irae: rather the texts come from the Lutheran Bible, both Old and New Testaments (Psalms, Isaiah; Matthew, John, James, 1 Peter) and Apocrypha (Wisdom of Solomon).
The Second Piano Concerto was written a year after the Academic Festival Overture, opus 80, and the Tragic Overture, opus 81 (both of summer 1880), and a full twenty-two years after the First Concerto. He had begun the work in 1878, but apparently the sketches were laid aside when he began to compose the Violin Concerto. Brahms’s last three symphonic works were still to come: the Third and Fourth Symphonies and the Double Concerto.
Most distinguished composers are sooner or later awarded the degree of doctor of music, honoris causa, for their work: Haydn had one from Oxford, Dvorak from Cambridge, and so on. Brahms was awarded his honorary degree by the University of Breslau (now Wroclaw, in Poland) on 11 May 1879.At the ceremony, which he was unable to attend, he was praised as a prince of “artis musicae severioris.” Two years later he offered his Academic Festival Overture for performance in Breslau as a mark of gratitude for the honor.