In our first two installments of the symphonies of Johannes Brahms, we learned about the difficulty he had escaping the shadow of the great Beethoven. We saw how he agonized over his first symphony for more than a decade largely because of his fear of not measuring up to Beethoven’s standard. We then saw how his second symphony was the beginning of his liberation from this shadow. His third symphony, however, convinced even his most vocal critics that he was on par with Beethoven. One of them even wrote that this third Symphony was “Brahms’ Eroica.” (The Eroica Symphony is one of Beethoven’s most monumental compositions). Another hailed it as being “as close to musical perfection” as he had ever heard.
Here are a few things to listen for:
- You may recall that the second symphony began with a very simple three-note motif: D, C sharp, D. As it turns out, Brahms utilized three-note motifs many times throughout his composing career. For instance, he wrote an entire sonata for the great violinist Joseph Joachim based on the notes F, A, and E (we actually still refer to the sonata as the “F-A-E Sonata”), which he took from Joachim’s life motto: “Free, but lonely” (in German, Frei Aber Einsam). Before writing the third symphony, Brahms declared himself “Free, but happy” (Frei Aber Froh) and subsequently based the entire symphony off of a three-note motif that consists of the notes F, A, and F.
- Most compositions involving orchestras end in dramatic fashion, with trumpets blasting and timpani clamoring. This symphony is wonderful because it ends the symphony in pianissimo.
- Brahms must truly have been high on life when he wrote the symphony, for he throws the listener an abundance of musical “curveballs.” For instance, there is no slow movement in the symphony; all of the movements are at roughly the same tempo. In all my years of ensemble performance, I can’t think of another symphony in which that is true.
- The third movement is the most famous and well-loved part of the symphony. If you listen to anything, listen to that. It starts at minute 22.