The Kennedy Center

Symphony No. 3 in F major, Op. 90

About the Work

National Symphony Orchesra Composer Portraits - Johannes Brahms Composer: Johannes Brahms
© Thomas May

Reacting to the premiere of the Third Symphony, the 23-year-old composer Hugo Wolf-a vocal member of the Wagner "camp," mocked "Dr. Johannes Brahms" as "a proficient musician who knows his counterpoint. ... Schumann, Chopin, Berlioz, and Liszt, the leaders of the revolutionary movement in music since Beethoven ... have passed by our symphonist without trace. ... He comes like a departed spirit back to his home, [staggering] up the rickety staircase."


In fact the Third Symphony met with immediate acclaim from the general public when it received its public premiere in Vienna in December 1883-the year of Wagner's death (he had died in Venice that February). If Beethoven's giant looming shadow triggered anxiety when Brahms began his career as a symphonist-waiting until his 40s to unveil his First Symphony (in 1876)-the Third set a new precedent of his own making, which he would need to overcome in the Fourth, his final contribution to the genre deemed hopelessly out of date by the avant-garde wing.


The Third's immediate success is all the more remarkable in light of this score's unusual features. The most compact of Brahms's symphonies, the Third might even be considered a virtuoso study in ambiguity. And here, to a far greater degree than the "progressives" would allow, Brahms turns out to be a soulmate to the boldest of his Romantic predecessors and contemporaries. The powerful effect of this music derives not from any program or appended narrative but from its capacity to reflect the paradoxical and elusive aspects of our inner selves-contradictions that would render as incoherent chaos if expressed in simple linear language but that acquire shape and meaning through Brahms's art of musical composition (a word whose etymology means "putting together").


Brahms achieves this through methods and structures whose details we need not understand to be moved by the results. The musicologist Walter Frisch neatly summarizes the modus operandi of the Third as a working out of three processes-thematic integration, large-scale harmonic orientation, and a conflict between pivotal pitches (pirouetting between major and minor)-all of which reinforce the Third's coherence and concision. "The more compact dimensions and balanced proportions," Frisch writes, "seem intended to point up the aspects of the symphony that transcend its individual movements." The result is "the most fully rounded work among [Brahms's] symphonies, perhaps among any of his multi movement instrumental compositions."


There had been a gap of seven years since the Second Symphony, a work whose lyricism evoked comparisons with Beethoven's Sixth (the Pastoral-another landmark for the programmatic wing of composers). In contrast, Brahms's Third Symphony was regarded-even by its first conductor, Hans Richter-as sharing a "heroic" quality on a par with another daunting Third: Beethoven's Eroica. Yet even if we recognize nearquotations of that Beethovenian source, even though Brahms's score contains its own passages of surging, dynamic passion, his Third is on the whole remarkably anti-heroic, its sound world saturated with unexpected moments of inward-looking intimacy. Here is another aspect of its fundamental ambiguity: the manner in which the Third subverts the "heroic" paradigm of an aggressively victorious conclusion. That each of the preceding movements ends quietly only emphasizes the novelty of its ethereal closure.


The opening sequence of three sustained chords, which are linked directly to the first theme proper (itself evoking still another Third, the Rhenish Symphony of Schumann), distills the elusive essence of the entire piece in a matter of seconds. The ambiguity here arises from the tonal conflict between major and minor that is embedded within this ascending core idea: Brahms flattens the A in the second chord, thus immediately introducing a tension between the F major that is the symphony's home key and its alter ego in the minor.


All of this triggers a complex series of psychological associations that will be played out through the course of the work. Similarly, the muscular thrust of the opening theme yields to the chamber-like intimacies of additional theme groups. Yet within the development section, these roles become reversed. Most puzzling of all, Brahms brings the opening movement to a close with a resigned subsidence. (Could the similarity to Wagner's Magic Fire Music be an intentional allusion?)


The two middle movements tend to bring forward a melancholy aspect to Brahms's ambiguous meanings in the Third. This is especially apparent in his exquisitely tinted orchestration-a dimension reflecting the excellence of the Meiningen Court Orchestra, which, as the scholar Karen Painter points out, Brahms had "at his disposal for private performances" during this period. The Andante brings the clarinet-bassoon combination Brahms used for one of his lyrical themes in the opening Allegro con brio to the fore. Together, they intone the Andante's chorale-like main theme as well as an auxiliary one that "disappears" but returns later in the final movement.


In lieu of a scherzo, Brahms writes a moody intermezzo. This is in C minor (a counterpart to the Andante's C major), another twist on the symphony's ongoing interplay of shadows through declension into the minor. Its chief melody alternately inhales and exhales in sighing gestures. New rhythmic figures flicker through the intervening middle section.


Brahms uses the major-minor dichotomy to stage still more ambiguities in the finale. This movement begins with a mysteriously winding theme in F minor given by the strings in unison. The music's suppressed character contrasts with the violent outbursts that ensue, but Brahms tirelessly implies new connections and links among his various musical ideas. Eventually the second theme from the Andante resurfaces, preparing the way for a return to the symphony's beginning in the coda. With a sense of inevitability- tellingly free of emptily affirmative rhetoric-the Third's opening theme returns and spirals gently downward, an understated adieu and a gesture of resignation rather than resolution.