Programme notes

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

1 Allegro con brio; 2 Andante; 3 Poco allegretto; 4 Allegro

In 1883, Johannes Brahms made another of his summer working sojourns in country towns and spas. He generally composed in the warm months and left the rest of the year for performing and copying out the summer’s production. Much influenced by landscape in his work, he may have chosen this town for its setting: Wiesbaden on the Rhine. There he found a high airy studio looking toward the river and got to work on his Third Symphony, perhaps his most personal symphony, finishing it nearly six years after he had completed the Second. Meanwhile he had written some of his greatest works, including the Violin Concerto, the Tragic Overture and Academic Festival Overture, and the Second Piano Concerto. The premiere, given by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, was on 2 December 1883 in the Musikvereinsaal, under the direction of Hans Richter who proclaimed it to be Brahms’ Eroica.

During the premiere the Wagnerites, who disliked Brahms and his works, hissed after every movement. Yet Brahms’ biographer Max Kalbeck reported, 'The audience was so intimately touched by this wonderful work that not only did the opposition fall quiet, but the ovations for the composer reached a level of enthusiasm hardly ever before attained in Vienna, and Brahms thus celebrated one of his greatest triumphs.'

After each subsequent performance Brahms polished his score further until it was 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.'

A musical motto consisting of three notes, F - A flat - 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 declared himself to be 'frei aber froh, (free but happy)'. The key-structure of the four movements also runs F major - C major - C minor - F minor/major; both C minor and F minor contain A flat, whilst the keys rooted on C are the most strongly related to those on F.

His F - A - F motto and transformed variations of it can be heard throughout the symphony. For example, at the beginning of the symphony the motto is the melody of the first three bars, and it is the bass line underlying the main theme in the next three; the motto persists, either boldly or disguised, as the melody or accompaniment throughout the movement. And the finale, a lyrical, passionate movement, rich in melody that is intensely exploited, altered and developed, ends with reference to the motto heard in the first movement, which quotes a motif heard in Schumann’s Symphony No. 3 Rhenish.

The themes of this symphony make several appearances in films over several decades: perhaps the most memorable reference appears in the TV series Fawlty Towers: Basil Fawlty, when accused by his wife of 'listening to that racket', famously responds 'Racket!? That’s Brahms! Brahms’s Third Racket!'

Colin Touchin

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