Johannes Brahms: Symphony No.3


Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 was composed in the summer of 1883 in Wiesbaden, which was about 6-7 years after he had completed his Symphony No. 2. It was premiered on December 2nd, 1883 by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, directed by Hans Richter. At the time of the premiere, this work was actually seen as ‘contemporary’ (by that I mean not traditional), so both the orchestra and audience found it a difficult work to digest. It’s bizarre to think that this work was seen as ‘modernist’, because now it’s quite quintessentially Romantic. Brahms composed his works so that they could stand in stead with Beethoven’s and his way of thinking certainly developed to achieve this.


The Music

Symphony No. 3 is the shortest of the four symphonic works that Brahms composed. The organic qualities of this work is thus more emphasised due to the compressed time of the work. The work is reflective and even pensive at times, with the musical quotation of the motto Frei aber froh (“Free but Happy”). This is Brahms’ response to Raff’s Frei aber einsam (“Free by Lonely”). You can hear this motif in bars when the sequence F-A-F is played. The symphony is mapped out into four movements:


1. Allegro con brio (F Major)

2. Andante (C Major)

3. Poco allegretto (C minor)

4. Allegro – Un poco sostenuto (F minor – F Major)


The four movements display various moods and atmosphere’s, which are intensified due to the compactness of the symphony. The ending is a topic of discussion as it breaks away from common convention ever so slightly – which we will discuss in due time. There is a growing-fascination within this symphony and each movement seems to aim to relieve this fascination, but alas we are left unanswered at the end.. One more thing to look out for is the ending of the movements. All four movements end quietly – which is very a very subtle trick.


Movement I – Allegro con brio

The first movement maps out the F-A-F motif and develops that throughout the movement. There are a lot of quick changes in tonality from major to minor. Rooted in F major, the key often switches to the relative minor and then quickly comes back again. This creates this fabulous musical colour that Brahms was so talented at creating. The beginning grabs our attention by playing two very strong tonic and dominant chords. The theme set out by the violins is quite reminiscent and there is a feel for nostalgia.

This movement goes through many twists and turns, but the musical foundation is always at the forefront. You can certainly hear from the different textures that Brahms plays with throughout this movement, that he was trained to a very high standard. A dance-like section takes over and the strings and winds are call and responding to one another. The use of brass on more fanfare-like section really makes such a fruitful effect within the orchestra. The lead up to the end of the movement is very exciting, loud and driven, and this is slowly brought back down both in terms of tempo, dynamic and range. The movement then ends on a tonic chord which fades away.


Movement II – Andante 

The second movement begins with a chorale-like motif from the upper winds, which is interjected by the strings, however the winds return and lead this section boldly. There are some real dark moments in this movement where you can hear a tempestuous pedal note from the lower strings, and other more ‘woody’ instruments (bassoon, viola etc) start layering above each other to create a very interesting textual effect. This slow movement is not riddled with sadness, but more pensive feelings of nostalgia. There feels to me some sort of idea of ‘looking back’ – perhaps to Beethoven? The movement is absolutely lovely and the clarinet especially takes some wonderful solo lines throughout. The movement ends with a tonic chord, which is played very delicately by the whole orchestra.


Movement III – Poco allegretto 

The penultimate movement of the symphony, directed Poco allegretto begins with a swaying motif from the strings. The mixture of pizzicato and arco strings creates a wonderful timbre to the start of this movement. There is a shift in tonality in this movement, as the previous was in C Major, and this movement is in C minor. This does not create darkness, but more colour to the music. The timbral build up at the end of the movement comes to a wonderfully delicate close at the end of the movement.


Movement IV – Allegro – Un poco sostenuto

The final movement of the symphony begins with a mysterious lower-string motif. This is taken and passed and developed around the orchestra, to again highlight the F-A-F motif from the first movement. There are lots of change in mood in this movement, with the tonality forever shifting between major and minor. The heavens open and there is this feverish string texture which leads us not to the triumphant ending that is expected, but a peaceful resolution.

The ending is a surprise, not just because it settles into F Major and not the minor, but because it ends in a such a way that was virtually unknown in the Romantic era. This ending allows the music to unwind and essentially put its last bit of energy into the memory and aura of the symphony’s opening.


Final Thoughts

Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 is such a concert hall favourite, Bursting with melodies, rich harmony and luscious textures, the work embodies the Romantic style.


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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You might also enjoy… Johannes Brahms: Symphony No.1


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