Composer Profile: Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897)

1-johannes-brahms-1833-1897-grangerOrchestra Vitae, 7.30PM 16th October 2014, St John’s Smith Square

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

Allegro con brio; Andante; Poco allegretto; Allegro.

Brahms wrote this work in the summer of 1883 at Wiesbaden, nearly six years after he completed his Second Symphony. In the interim he had written some of his most celebrated works, including the Violin Concerto, the Tragic and Academic Festival Overtures, and the Second Piano Concerto.

The Symphony’s première performance was given on 2 December 1883 by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, under the direction of Hans Richter, who later proclaimed it to be Brahms’ equivalent of Beethoven’s Third Symphony – the Eroica. The work was well received, more so than his Second Symphony. Although Richard Wagner had died earlier that year, the public feud between Brahms and Wagner had not yet subsided. Wagner enthusiasts tried to interfere with the symphony’s première, and the conflict between the two factions nearly brought about a duel.

After each performance, Brahms polished his score further, until it was finally published in May 1884. His friend and influential music critic Eduard Hanslick said, “Many music lovers will prefer the titanic force of the First Symphony; others, the untroubled charm of the Second, but the Third strikes me as being artistically the most nearly perfect”.

The opening bars of the work include three frequent characteristics of Brahms’ music: wide melodic intervals, contrasting major and minor passages and the use of both triple and duple divisions of the bar. The conflict between major and minor sections recurs in the finale, which begins in F minor and only resolves into F major in the coda.

A musical motto consisting of three notes, F–Ab–F, was significant to Brahms. In 1853 his friend Joseph Joachim had taken as his motto “Free, but lonely”, in German, “Frei aber einsam”, and from the notes represented by the first letters of these words, F–A–E, Schumann, Brahms and Dietrich had jointly composed a violin sonata dedicated to Joachim. At the time of the Third Symphony, Brahms was a fifty-year-old bachelor who declared himself to be Frei aber froh, “Free but Happy”. His F–A–F motto, and some altered variations of it, can be heard throughout the symphony.

Joachim’s motto is present in the melody of the first three bars of the first movement, and is then the bass line in the following three. The motto persists, as either the melody or accompaniment throughout the movement. Brahms’ third movement is rather unique as it is moderate in tempo, poco allegretto rather than the standard swift scherzo The finale is a lyrical, passionate movement, rich in melody that Brahms intensely exploited, altered, and developed. The movement ends with reference to the motto heard in the first movement before fading away to a quiet ending.