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
When young, impassioned, and impressionable, Johannes Brahms could easily have been swept up into the tradition-shattering waves of the “new” German music that were washing over the European shores in the mid-19th century. The French Berlioz and the Hungarian Liszt, zealots for a music united to literature and freed of the formal strictures of Classicism, flattered the gifted Hamburg youth, hoping to win him as a new convert to their side. Brahms resisted instinctively: not for him the exaggerated rhetoric of this school, the extroversion, the bombast. Called a “little Beethoven” by the King of Hanover (the beginning of a Ludwig complex from which he was never to be quite free), Brahms at 20 felt an artistic bond between himself and the great master, just as he was very shortly to come under the spell of Robert Schumann.
When he appeared at Schumann’s doorstep, the 20-year-old Brahms had already formed a distinct individuality — remarkable for one of such tender years. As a disciple of both Beethoven and Schumann, Brahms set about further defining his artistic identity: a Classical Romanticist. Labels aside, Brahms flourished — always very carefully, to be sure — in the world of symphony, concerto, chamber music, the very world where the gods of the “new” music exhorted him not to tread. Taking his creative steps on the road where the traditions of Beethoven were filtered through the many hues of Romanticism abounding in Europe after that master’s death in 1827, he fought for, and found, the courage to be his own man artistically. It was not an easy fight, for this was a complex, highly self-critical person who took with him as lifelong companions those gloomy fellows, insecurity and pessimism. And, in spite of his growing renown, they became more intense as he grew older. At 49, they had him so convinced that his creative days were over, he assured his published Simrock there would be no more business from Brahms. Happily this depression was temporary and the next “business” was the Third Symphony, written at a summer abode in Wiesbaden in 1883.
Labeled Brahms’ “Eroica” by the composer’s friend, conductor Hans Richter, the Third Symphony is, however, neither as cosmically grand nor as trenchantly humanistic as the like-numbered epic by Beethoven. But heroic it is on a Brahmsian level, which is to say that it is filled with conflicts and warm resolutions, turbulence and gentle sentiment, desolation and geniality. And it ends with a hyper-personal vision of twilight serenity.
The Symphony’s dramatic conflict is posed at the very beginning of the work, in the three-note motto that pervades the first movement and reappears so movingly in the fourth. Although the letters of the motto — F, A-flat, F — are said to stand for the composer’s personal credo, Frei aber froh (“Free but glad”), and interpreted by some to reflect his feeling about his unmarried state, Robert Schauffler, in his The Unknown Brahms, has a more serious analysis. “The apparent illogicality [of his motto] used to puzzle me. Why ‘free but glad?’ Surely there should be no ifs or buts to the happiness conferred by freedom. Later, however, when I learned of Brahms’ peasant streak, the reason for the ‘but’ appeared. According to the Dithmarsh countryman’s traditional code, a footloose person without fixed duties or an official position should go bowed by the guilty feeling that he is no better than a vagabond. Brahms the musician was able to conquer this conventional sense of inferiority, but Brahms the man — never.”
So reasons Schauffler, but whether or not one accepts his explanation, one need only observe the Symphony’s first few measures to sense the Brahmsian conflict. After the opening wind and brass clarion call chord, in the major key, the second chord’s minor key implications cloud the positive issue. At the third chord, the main theme begins with high optimism, but the impassioned ebullience is quickly darkened by the same musical means of a sudden shift from major to minor, a device older than Bach, which Brahms used lavishly (even slavishly) to produce dramatic duality. One of the most striking instances of this device occurs in this movement’s development section, when the lyric, almost folksy, second theme, having earlier been introduced by the clarinet, is now, in its minor incarnation, given to violas and cellos and imbued with surging, rhapsodic intensity.
In the Andante second movement, unity of a most subtle kind is achieved through the inclusion within its main theme of the first movement’s ascending three-note motto. The motto is then woven naturally into the remainder of the Andante as a consequence of its having become a member of the movement’s thematic family. Not so incidentally, in terms of the Symphony’s prismatic emotional tone, the easy, lyrical grace of this movement is twice darkened by an episode that hovers ominously, though briefly, before proceeding to one of those ineffably warm Brahmsian melodies.
As great an architect of small forms as of large ones, Brahms constructs the simplest of scherzos as his Allegretto third movement. No Beethoven scherzo dynamism for Brahms. Instead, we have here a gorgeous, somewhat breathless entreaty in C minor, preparing emotionally for the last movement’s mysterious opening, not in the work’s home key of F major, but in hushed F minor. The finale’s theme, introduced by unison strings and bassoons, eventually gives way to broad major-key eloquence and agitation, and to all manner of ingenious transformations, of which Brahms was always a master.
The transformation that achieves the greatest impact in the entire work and defines the very essence of the Symphony’s poetic splendor is the recurrence in the finale’s last measures of the first movement’s descending main theme. In its original statement, this melody was quickened by the bravado of urgent strength. At symphony’s end, the drama has hastened to an intense denouement, and the self-same theme returns as a flickering contemplation, a sigh of deepest bittersweet resignation so evocative of vulnerable humanness that even the crustiest among us cannot fail to be moved.
— Orrin Howard served for many years as the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Director of Publications and Archives.