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Brahms: Symphony No. 3

Brahms composed the bulk of the Third Symphony in the summer months of 1883, though perhaps he made use of sketches from an earlier time; thus it falls between the Second Piano Concerto (completed in 1881) and the Fourth Symphony (1884–85).The orchestral works of the 1880s reflect Hans von Bulow’s offer to have his orchestra at Meiningen—one of Europe’s most accomplished—read Brahms’s new compositions in informal surroundings.Brahms profited greatly from this unusual opportunity to work privately with a fine ensemble, both for work in progress and with ideas for the future.

Commentators enjoy interpreting the Third Symphony as a massive statement of a private emblem, Frei aber froh (free but joyful), reflected in the melodic motive with which the symphony in fact opens (F-A-F). (This was Brahms’s reply to his friend Joachim’s more sullen monogram Frei aber einsam, free but alone). However that may be—and Brahms appears to have embedded symbols of all sorts in his music—there is much more to be said of the Third. For one thing, it is the briefest and most compact of the four symphonies. There is, as in the First Symphony, a heroic streak, still Beethovenian. Cyclic thematic recall establishes certain unities of structure, and there are, moreover, some direct allusions to the first movement of Schumann’s
Third.

The opening motto introduces a big sonata in 6/4, a meter Brahms manipulates with great imagination, especially when he allows his penchant for watery figurations full play. The second group begins in 9/4 in a passive key (A major) with the long theme for clarinet and bassoon, reaching closure in great rolling swells of the woodwind choir. Developmental agitations settle out in favor of the expansive horn solo based on the motto intervals; the recapitulation is reached through a twinkling sostenuto that ebbs rather than plows into the moment of return.

The Andante begins as a chorale for woodwinds. Take careful note of the next
theme, the questioning melody for clarinet and bassoon, as this is reused in the last movement to magnificent effect. Once the formal demands have been met, the movement becomes increasingly memorable: the coda starts at the great welling up of sentiment in the strings, goes on to recall fragments of the second theme, and concludes with a wonderful and warmly paternal cadence in the low brass. The third movement is a melancholy waltz in C minor, with a curious center section of leanings-across-the-bar in lieu of true downbeats. Winds have the melodies in the recapitulation: where the horn solo passes to oboe, an ardent countermelody is introduced in the bassoon. Suggestions of the center section lead to the final cadence.

During both the Andante and the Allegretto a certain tension has built up, since the epic sweep of the first movement has been met so far only by the serenity of the second movement. Only at the end of the recapitulation does the major mode finally blossom; shortly afterward the woodwinds and brass give the recycled theme its uplifted, hallowing treatment. But Brahms’s master stroke is saved for the very end: a subdued reference in the violins, sempre pianissimo, to the majestic opening bars of the first movement.

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