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

Cover of Brahms Symphonies (London 1979)

It took me a while to gradually get familiar with, and start to appreciate Brahms 3, maybe because his first symphony has been much documented over the years on how it was much influenced by Beethoven’s fifth symphony.

The most notable two features of this symphony are the opening motif, and the quiet ending of all four movements. At the time of his composition of this work, Brahms was fifty years old, yet he claimed his personal motto as Frei aber froh (“Free but happy”), which is represented by the three notes corresponding to the initials of the three words, F-A-F (the A is actually A♭). The opening of the symphony literally announces this musical motto on the winds, which is embedded throughout the first movement as well as the finale.

The fact that all four movements end quietly is probably anything but coincidence. It seems to fit the musical style and personality of the Brahms we know, who stayed much rooted in the classical forms and tradition, evidently seen by his rivalry with Liszt and Wagner. Though a giant of the romantic era, his symphonies overall are far less intense

in emotion and drastic in color as works of others such as Berlioz and Tchaikovsky (even compared to Beethoven who he revered), but relatively calmer and even abstract, with his emotional struggles much obscured in his superbly crafted works.

1. Allegro con brio

The first movement in sonata form begins with a strong exclamation on the F-A-F motto on the winds:

The 2nd F in the motto is the beginning of the main theme on the strings, passionate yet a bit unease:

Soon it subsides and introduces the 2nd theme, contrasting to the first by clarinet and bassoon, relaxed and smooth:

A series ascending chromatic notes pushes the music to a climax; then the F-A-F motto comes in again leading an identical repeat of the two themes, leaving less time for development, during which the motto is called out on oboe and horn before recapitulation starts. After the theme group repeats again, the coda slowly recall the main theme on the strings, and ends peacefully on the woodwinds.

2. Andante

The two middle movements largely contrasts to the opening and last movements in character. This Andante movement is calm and serene, with its first theme starting on clarinet and bassoon, sounding almost pastoral:

The 2nd theme starts on clarinet and bassoon again, with a elongated rhythm:

Each theme is presented and then followed by a bit variation, by altering rhythmic pattern and instrumentation. The development section is another beautiful variation, where the cello plays a slightly altered first theme, while violin playing cantabile style of the theme with triplets and syncopation.

The whole movement sounds more like a theme & variation than a typical sonata form. You can clearly distinguish the statement of each theme followed by variation; the way development gradually morphs back into the main theme of what we consider the recapitulation is just mastery and magnificent, reminds me of how Brahms does the same in the finale of his Saint Anthony Variations, Op. 56.

3. Poco allegretto

The 3rd movement has a moderate tempo much slower than a typical scherzo; the main theme is lyrical, started first by cello then by horn at recapitulation. The mood is somewhat somber and nostalgia.

The second theme is a gloomy trio:

The movement is of ternary form, though the first theme is elaborated three times when it returns, on horn then oboe and strings. The movement ends quietly by brief restatement of second theme.

4. Allegro – Un poco sostenuto

The finale comes out of the retreat of middle movements and back with powerful momentum (at least for the first two thirds of it). In sonata form, the movement’s main theme can be considered having two parts, part A starts chattering quietly on bassoon and strings:

Part B seems to be based on the middle theme of the 2nd movement:

The 2nd theme is led by cello based a major chord:

Development of this movement is dramatic (by Brahms’s standard), and simply brilliant. Once the two themes are presented, with a crescendo on the trombone, the music suddenly explodes, and presents a bar that is extracted out of the latter part of the theme 1A, and serves as the core rhythmic pattern that propels the forceful mood of the entire movement:

After elaborated on this motif, the pattern is then altered with syncopation to reinforce the forward momentum:

And hear how hesitant theme 1B at the beginning is now powered up and becomes a shout-out:

After reaching climax repeating the main theme, the movement slides into a long coda. The power of the dotted quarter note pattern on the main theme now softens into murmuring on strings, so is theme 1B being stretched out on brass. Then the memorable F-A-F motto emerges again:

Finally, the main theme from first movement is called out quietly, ending the entire work with peaceful resolution:

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