Symphony No. 3, Op. 79 (1907)

By Benjamin M. Korstvedt, University of Iowa

Written for the concert Fin de Siècle, performed on May 12, 1999 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

For more than thirty-five years Robert Fuchs (1847-1927) taught harmony and music theory at the Vienna Conservatory, where his students included figures as diverse as Hugo Wolf and Jean Sibelius. Today’s program includes the work of the teacher as well as that of three of the finest composers who passed through his classes: Mahler, Zemlinsky, and Schreker. One of the most obvious results of this juxtaposition is to highlight the stylistic distance between the teacher and his students, all three of whom were imbued in various ways with the spirit of modernism, however differently they expressed it. In this company what is most striking about Fuchs’s symphony is its resolute traditionalism. Not only does the work hew closely to the established symphonic forms and the classic four-movement scheme, but it clearly does not share the impulse toward novel harmonic, timbral, formal, or expressive strategies that Mahler, Zemlinsky, and Schreker shared. In its harmony, orchestration, and expressive range Fuchs’s music seems more typical of the 1870s or 1880s than the 1900s.

While Fuchs was undoubtedly not a musical progressive, his apparent conservatism is not simply a reflection of a refusal to stay “up to date” or an eschewal of the trappings of musical modernism. Unlike Mahler and Zemlinsky, to say nothing of Schoenberg, Fuchs did not partake of the tradition–which stemmed from Schopenhauer and Wagner–that understood music as an expression of metaphysical meanings or deep symbolism and, not incidentally, was the source of many of the most important musical innovations in the later nineteenth century. Rather, Fuchs’s music seems to embody the aesthetic of his older colleague at the Vienna Conservatory, Eduard Hanslick, who rejected the idea that the aim of music was to plumb philosophical depths or encode psychological states and argued instead that musical beauty derived essentially from the creation of “regular and pleasing” sonic forms. It is no accident that Fuchs achieved his first and greatest success as a composer with his five Serenades (his First Serenade of 1874 was an instant hit), a genre far more concerned with direct melodic and rhythmic appeal than with the meaningful rhetoric and expressive symbolism of the late Romantic symphony. Fuchs wrote a total of five serenades and three symphonies (1884, 1887, and 1907). In addition he wrote a piano concerto (which won the composer a prize from the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in 1881), forty chamber works, a variety of pianos works, including three sonatas and many character pieces, some fifty songs, three masses, and two operas, neither of which was a theatrical success.

Fuchs’s Symphony No. 3, his last work in the genre, followed its two predecessors (which date from 1884 and 1887) by some 20 years. The work recalls the music of Fuchs’s friend Brahms in style and tone, and especially in its high craftsmanship. (Indeed several passages seem virtually to paraphrase the older, greater composer. ) It has something of the serenade about it too, with its relative smallness of dimensions and scope, its prominent use of the woodwinds, and its rhythmic crispness. The symphony is in the standard four-movement scheme, and its formal patterns are not hard to follow. The first movement (Allegro moderato) is built around two nicely delineated main themes, which are clearly laid out in the exposition. The opening theme, which is introduced by the oboe, is rather Brahmsian in its tightly wound rhythm, its metrical swing (the movement begins in 6/4), and its momentary minor-key colorations. The second theme is much more suave, with its graceful accompaniment and its staccato woodwinds. The movement works through the conventional pattern of development section followed by recapitulation, which clearly brings back the main themes of the movement.

The second movement (Andante con variazioni in A-flat major) is an expansive theme and variations in the best Viennese style, and again makes great use of the winds instruments. It begins rather formally, with its clear divisions and alternations, and it seems as if this is to be a movement with no great pretensions. Yet about two-thirds of the way through, a minor-key variations grows into an impressive, gravely impassioned episode that grants the movement an unexpected depth.

The third movement, which is marked Allegro scherzando (C major), is almost neo-classical in its regularity of form (Scherzo-Trio-reprise of the Scherzo). The Scherzo opens with a bright, rhythmic interchange between strings and woodwinds and continues with vivacious good spirits. The central Trio (A major) is somewhat more richly colored and romantic. The second and third movements nicely demonstrate Fuchs’s adherence to the Brahmsian symphonic model. They are not powerfully contrasting, nor do they push to the extremes of expression or tempo. Fuchs, like Brahms, treats the two inner movements moderately and avoids both the mystical Adagio and the demonic Scherzo.

The finale was the “problem” movement of the nineteenth-century symphony. Think of the diverse extremes to which Beethoven went the last movement of his Ninth Symphony, Brahms in his Fourth, and Bruckner in his Fifth. Fuchs does not take up the gauntlet nearly so boldly, but the Finale of this symphony (which is also set in a clear sonata form) is a bit more dramatic and rhetorical than are the preceding movements. Its opening flourish (which vaguely recalls the “horror fanfare” that open’s the Finale of Beethoven’s Ninth, although without anything like Beethoven’s visionary audacity) seems to herald something grand, and he development section contains a fugato that generates some intensity, as does the preparation for the recapitulation, but for the most part the movement continues the serenade-like mood established in the first three movements.

In Vienna, Fuchs was nicknamed “Serenaden-Fuchs” (“serenade fox”), and this moniker seems to encapsulate a musical personality that is quite tame and slyly charming. We can sense these traits in this symphony. While it might seem to be a slightly academic–and even reactionary–exercise, careful attention will reveal that within its admittedly circumscribed orbit the work contains much that is musically engaging and worth hearing.