Brahms – Symphony No. 3 in F Major, Opus 90

by Max Derrickson

Johannes Brahms   (b. Hamburg, 1833; d. Vienna, 1897)

Symphony No. 3 in F Major, Opus 90
I. Allegro con brio
II. Andante
III. Poco allegretto
IV. Allegro
Brahms wrote his third symphony at a time when his successes were many and his confidence with symphonic writing was high. Many of his contemporaries considered him the greatest living composer, though the modest Brahms would have never boasted of such a label. His devotion to composing was legendary. He routinely rejected teaching and conducting posts, and rarely attended celebrations in his own honor, because he wanted to be free to write music. He often spent his summers in places of natural beauty so that he could compose in seclusion. In the summer of 1883, Brahms completed his third symphony in lovelyWiesbaden. We know little of the work’s genesis, since Brahms intended that his works be known to the public only in their final form. We do know that when he felt it sufficiently complete, he presented the manuscript to his dear friend Clara Schumann (by then, the widow of composer Robert Schumann). Enthralled by the piece, she wrote to Brahms, “… I have spent many happy hours with your wonderful creation… From start to finish one is wrapped about with the mysterious charm of the woods and forests … I hear the babbling brook and the buzzing of insects….”

Listening to the opening Allegro con brio of the Brahms’ third symphony, it’s hard to imagine anything else but the shafts of sunlight that shoot down through parted clouds, sometimes called “God-rays.”. There is a rising energy of orchestral sound in the interval of a sixth that vastly opens up into an expansive set of chords, each one a grandiose spear of light. Through this opening, Brahms sets the tone of the whole piece, creating the essence of a theme from which many variant themes will follow, and giving us a glimpse of his harmonic intentions with fluctuations between F major and F minor. After this marvelous opening come a group of themes ripe with the potential for development, and the appearance of Brahms’ characteristic simultaneous duple-against-triple meter. Most striking, though, is the sweep of the music itself, carrying the listener through the turns of mood that are a hallmark of Brahms’ compositions, from those awe-inspiring God-rays, through wonderment and deep contentment, to a gentle ending.

[. . .]   The finale ends softly, recalling almost exactly, yet much more ethereally, the very opening bars of the first movement – memories of God-rays to glint in our souls.