17 Apr 2013

Brahms – Symphony No. 3 in F major, Op. 90

Johannes Brahms (1833 — 1897): Symphony No. 3 in F major, Op. 90

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 3 bassoons; 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones; percussion; strings

Performance time: 33 minutes


Contemporary reports and later accounts by music historians give us oddly contradictory impressions of Brahms. In photographs we see the handsome, sensitive young composer and pianist turn into a great bear of a man, ursine and shaggy. Plenty of quotations demonstrate how gruff he could be in talking about his own music and others’. And yet, underneath it all, he seems to have remained easily bruised, still the fretful composer who worked and reworked his first symphony his first symphony for 14 years or more while the music world waited impatiently for the opus that might prove to be “Beethoven’s Tenth.” “You have no idea what it’s like to hear the footsteps of a giant like that behind you,” he said. He finally felt ready to present his first symphony to the public when he was 43, yet its eventual success – which seemed to fulfill music-lovers’ hopes for a worthy successor to Beethoven – made Brahms even more nervous about writing a second.

Indeed, the writing of symphonies seems to have pushed all of Brahms’ buttons; for the sake of his nerves and to escape the pressure of expectations, he sought the solitude of country life for this kind of work when possible. Brahms composed his Symphony No. 3 in Wiesbaden during the summer of 1883, nearly six years after completing his second. Hans Richter, who led the premiere with the Vienna Philharmonic, acclaimed it as Brahms’ Eroica — high praise that seemed to reawaken Beethoven’s ghost yet again. Brahms continued to refine work until its publication the following year.

What to Listen For

It’s probably redundant to describe this or any of Brahms’ four symphonies as “mature” works, since Brahms generally refused to publish compositions that he had not polished to lapidary perfection. But his symphonies, in particular, are masterfully wrought; in this one, which he completed at age 50, we find him at the peak of his creative powers. In it we hear a magnificent symphony of flowing lyricism by a composer who learned from Beethoven’s mastery without imitating him. Musicologists detect a melodic reference to Brahms’ unmarried status throughout the symphony: variations of the motif F-A-F, for the German “frei aber froh” (“free but happy”). To some listeners, the burnished bronze of the symphony’s surface suggests hidden melancholy. But as its rich, passionate finale subsides, we are left with feelings of warm solitude rather than loneliness.