Brahms – Symphony No. 3 – Program Note

Johannes Brahms (1833–1897)
Symphony No. 3 in F Major, Op. 90
Composed 1883

Brahms composed his third symphony in the space of only four months, which is especially noteworthy because it had been six years since the completion of his second symphony. The symphony in F major is the shortest of Brahms’ four symphonies. It has a remarkably unified and compact structure, with thematic material reappearing across multiple movements, and a sophisticated key structure. Brahms’ longtime friend and musical confidant Clara Schumann observed this cohesiveness, saying:

All the movements seem to be of one piece, one beat of the heart, each one a jewel! From start to finish one is wrapped about with the mysterious charm of the woods and forests. I could not tell you which movement I loved most.

Clara heard the woods and the forests, but the river should also be mentioned. The first theme, which returns at the end of both the first and last movements, is a quote from Robert Schumann’s Rhenish Symphony, and Brahms composed the work while staying in the town of Weisbaden, on the Rhine. In addition to the passionate turbulence so common in Brahms’ works, there is a gentle intimacy to this symphony, whose four movements all end softly. The most striking unifying aspect is the three note “motto” F, A-flat, F, which opens the work and reappears throughout. This motive was something of an inside joke for Brahms, a response to his friend violinist Joseph Joachim’s musical motto FAE standing for “Frei aber einsam” (free but lonely). FAF (or in this case, F, A-flat, F) represented “Frie aber froh” (free but happy) for Brahms. The tension between the major and minor modes is one of the primary drivers of the symphony, with A natural and A-flat juxtaposed constantly, as they are in the first three chords. Another defining characteristic is the prevalence of rhythmic instability, first heard in the opening theme with its ambiguity between duple and triple meter. The second movement has the character of a wind serenade with an austere second theme that returns again in the last movement. Clara Schumann described the delicately melancholy third movement as “a pearl, but it is a grey one dipped in a tear of woe.” The unsettled turbulence of the last movement is resolved in the coda, with the return to F major and the gentle echo of the end of the first movement.

~By Nell Flanders, Assistant Conductor
Princeton Symphony Orchestra

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