Symphony No. 3
Symphony No. 10
It was near Wiesbaden in summer 1883 where the 50-year-old composer wrote his Symphony No.3, working during the morning hours while devoting afternoons to longs walks in the lovely surrounding country. Not until he returned to Vienna did friends and colleagues learn of Brahms’s first symphony in six years. Following private performances of a two-piano reduction for his circle of friends, the Third had its triumphant premiere in Vienna on 2 December.
Berlin didn’t have to wait long to hear the new work. Already that summer Franz Wüllner, director of the recently established Berlin Philharmonic subscription concerts, became the composer’s first friend to see the score, and he immediately expressed interest in introducing it to the German capital. But Brahms also offered it to a still closer friend, the Berlin-based violinist-teacher-conductor Joseph Joachim, and it was Joachim who ended up conducting the local premiere, on 4 January 1884 at the Academy of Arts. A few weeks later, after playing his First Piano Concerto, Brahms himself took the baton from Wüllner to conduct the rapturously received first Berliner Philharmoniker performance of the Third Symphony – the audience stormily demanded an encore of the third movement. It wasn’t until the following season that Wüllner finally got to conduct the piece.
The Third is the shortest, most concentrated and thematically unified of Brahms’s four symphonies. It opens with rising wind chords outlining the composer’s famous F-A-F (“frei aber froh” – “free but happy”) motto, which pervades the entire first movement in myriad guises – the broad descending main theme that follows is supported by the “F-A-F” motto, moved down to form the bass line – and makes a decisive, calming appearance at the end of the turbulent finale.
The two inner movements are tranquil interludes: an Andante that begins gently on pastoral woodwinds, with a solemn second theme on clarinet and bassoon that becomes increasingly important and plays a vital role in the last movement; then an introspective Poco allegretto in minor, with a hauntingly lovely theme introduced by cellos.
The dramatic finale of this F major symphony is, surprisingly, also in minor. Towards the end, the motto and main theme of the first movement, ushered in by the solemn theme from the Andante, return to bring this remarkable work to a peaceful close.