Length: c. 35 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: February 6, 1920, Walter Henry Rothwell conducting
Although Brahms was just 50 when he wrote his Third Symphony, he looked back to younger days with the musical quotation of the motto Frei aber froh (“Free but happy”) which was his defiant response to Joseph Joachim’s Frei aber einsam (“Free but lonely”). Brahms would indeed remain single throughout his lifetime, despite a number of infatuations and an especially close relationship with Clara Schumann – both before and after the sad death of her husband Robert at age 46. We know that Brahms wrote the Symphony quickly, in the summer of 1883 in Wiesbaden, working in a rented studio with a view of the Rhine valley. The dramatic aspects of the Third Symphony, the shortest of the four Brahms wrote, are intensified by the compactness of the work.
The F-A-F motif is heard immediately in the rising exclamation from the winds that opens this passionate work. (The second F is actually the first note of the principal theme, which will recur throughout the work, transformed in many ways.) The passion soon subsides to allow for a mood of reflection and nostalgia. This pattern of tension and relaxation continues throughout the movement, and indeed the entire work.
Between the powerful first movement and the similarly charged finale, Brahms nestles two more-relaxed movements, which some claim are based on sketches for an abandoned Faust project from a few years earlier. The Andante, says writer Robert Dearling, “considers the meaning of life and, more than once, seems to dwell in suspended animation while pondering great truths.” The ravishing Poco allegretto is an example of the sheer beauty Brahms can create with the simplest of materials and means.
Among the many surprises in this remarkable work is the unusual fact that each of the four movements of the Symphony ends quietly. The mysterious introduction to the finale is followed by a sudden outburst of heroic intensity, but eventually the material from earlier movements is resolved to a shimmering recollection of the opening theme. There is no throbbing tragedy such as that which we encounter in Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” Symphony, but instead a gentle and comforting serenity.
— Dennis Bade