Classical Connections: Major Thirds


A long time ago when I was two or three years old, I used to tinkle around on my grandmother’s piano.  My earliest memory was the discovery that the notes F sharp and B flat played simultaneously sounded the same as the local air-raid siren.  I was tremendously excited about this revelation though no one else shared my enthusiasm.  Perhaps they were more concerned about the impending bombs, though we lived in a residential district and the enemy planes (I was told in later years) usually performed their unwelcome task above industrial areas.

Another thing I didn’t know at the time was that the two notes, more accurately described as F sharp and A sharp create a sound called a major third.  If you sing the first two notes of Morning Has Broken or Kum Ba Yah you’ll hear the notes of a major third, assuming of course that you’re singing in tune.  Of course, a major third can be produced on any note of the scale, but for some reason I selected an F sharp.

Robert Schumann circa 1850.

The major third is one of the most significant sounds in western music because it has informed the basis of harmony.  It wasn’t always thus.  During the early Middle Ages the major third was – rather surprisingly – considered discordant.  I was ruminating about major thirds a couple of days ago and although the subject is totally unrelated, I wondered how many important third symphonies start off in a major key.  As it turned out, not a lot.

Mozart chose E flat major for his Third Symphony but he was only eight years old and I suspect that his pushy father probably wrote most of it.  Beethoven, Schumann and Shostakovich also selected E flat major for their Third Symphonies and Brahms chose F major.  Tchaikovsky wrote his Third in D major and Sibelius wrote his in C major.  Max Bruch wrote his little-known Third in E major.  And as far as I know, that’s about it.  All the other major composers chose a minor key.

Robert Schumann (1810-1856): Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, Op. 97. Denmark Radio Symphony Orchestra cond. Thomas Dausgaard (Duration: 33:02; Video: 1080p HD)

If you’re not familiar with Schumann’s symphonies, this is as good as anywhere to start because there are some memorable tunes, lively orchestral writing and some heroic moments for the brass.  It was the last symphony Schumann composed and dates from 1850.  His publisher named the symphony The Rhenish and the work was originally intended to portray musical images of the Rhineland but Schumann later removed the descriptive titles from the score.

The opening bars remind me of Beethoven’s Third and this is hardly surprising because Schumann almost certainly used Beethoven’s Third and Sixth symphonies as models.  He cast the work in five movements, just as Beethoven had done with his Sixth.  Even if you’ve never heard it before, the dance-like second movement may seem familiar.  It was originally entitled Morning on the Rhine and its lilting theme is almost pure Beethoven.

The third movement is a peaceful intermezzo and it’s followed by a solemn slow movement described by one writer as “perhaps one of the most awe-inspiring things Schumann ever penned for orchestra.”  The finale returns to the animated mood of the start and brings the work to a thrilling conclusion.

The first performance was conducted by Schumann and was a resounding success, the audience applauding enthusiastically after every movement.  After the Finale the orchestra joined the applause and cheered the composer, much no doubt, to his satisfaction.

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897):  Symphony No. 3 in F major, Op. 90. Orchestra of the University of Music Franz Liszt Weimar cond. Nicolás Pasquet (Duration: 38:51; Video: 720p HD)

By the time Brahms finished this wonderful symphony in the summer of 1883 he had already completed some of his best-known works including the Violin Concerto, the Second Piano Concerto and the popular Academic Festival Overture.  He was a big name – and on top form.

The Third has been described as “the most personal of Brahms’s four symphonies” though the composer resolutely refused to divulge any inner meaning.  It’s his shortest symphony and unusually for the time, all four movements end quietly.  It opens heroically with a three-note motif played by the woodwind and brass setting the mood for the entire work.  This motif appears in various forms during the first movement and is probably a clue to the inner meaning of the symphony but I’ll leave you to find out more, if these things interest you.

Even at a superficial level, the work contains some lovely music and the highly competent Professor Pasquet gives a splendid and measured reading of the work.  He really seems to bring out the best in these young musicians, who provide a memorable account of this fine yet so personal symphony.