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Composed: 1883

Length: c. 35 minutes

Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: February 6, 1920, Walter Henry Rothwell conducting

About this Piece

Although Brahms was just 50 when he wrote his Third Symphony, he looked back to younger days with the musical quotation of the motto Frei aber froh (“Free but happy”) which was his defiant response to Joseph Joachim’s Frei aber einsam (“Free but lonely”). Brahms would indeed remain single throughout his lifetime, despite a number of infatuations and an especially close relationship with Clara Schumann – both before and after the sad death of her husband Robert at age 46. We know that the composer wrote the Symphony quickly, in the summer of 1883 in Wiesbaden, working in a rented studio with a view of the Rhine valley. The dramatic aspects of the Third Symphony, the shortest of the four Brahms wrote, are intensified by the compactness of the work.

The F-A-F motif is heard immediately in the rising exclamation from the winds that opens this passionate work. (The second

F is actually the first note of the principal theme, which will recur throughout the work, transformed in many ways.) The passion soon subsides to allow for a mood of reflection and nostalgia. This pattern of tension and relaxation continues throughout the movement, and indeed the entire work.

Between the powerful first movement and the similarly charged finale, Brahms nestles two more-relaxed movements, which some claim are based on sketches for an abandoned Faust project from a few years earlier. The Andante, says writer Robert Dearling, “considers the meaning 

Brahms was a natural at the keyboard who started playing in public as a teenager in Hamburg’s waterfront pubs. His music combines the serious and the playful, the intellectual and the earthy in a way that reminded many of his contemporaries of Beethoven. There is a mastery apparent in everything Brahms composed, from his charming piano miniatures to his Olympian symphonies. Brahms’ Third Symphony was played in the LA Phil’s first season, and his music has been a part of the orchestra’s repertoire ever since. Recently, the orchestra won a Grammy® for its recording of his Fourth Symphony, under Music & Artistic Director Gustavo Dudamel.


Further listening:

A German Requiem (1865-1868) Monteverdi Choir, John Eliot Gardiner (Philips)

Clarinet Quintet, Op. 115 (1891) Paul Meyer; Renaud Capuçon, Gautier Capuçon, et al. (Warner Classics)