Symphony No. 3 in F major, op. 90
2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, strings
First performance: 2 December 1883. Vienna Musikverein. Vienna Philharmonic. Hans Richter, conductor.
I. Allegro con brio
III. Poco allegretto
IV. Allegro - Un poco sostenuto
In his Third Symphony, Brahms's answer to the conundrum of the classical tradition is synthesis. While he had never bothered to hide his indebtedness to Beethoven from the First Symphony onward, the Symphony in F major embraces an even wider range of influences. The first of these would be literary, as much of the second and third movements had originally been intended as incidental music to a production of Goethe's Faust, a touchstone of the Romantic era. With this in mind, one might hear the journey of the opening motto — the first three notes (F-Ab-F) — throughout all four movements as a sort of Faustian struggle. For example, the melancholic third movement is hardly the mischievous or humorous scherzo audiences had come to expect. And, as if confirming the dubious character of the work, the finale lacks the heroic ending of his First and Second Symphonies — an anti-triumph for Faust, the original anti-hero.
On a formal level, the work is unified by the recurrence of not just the opening motto, but several themes, across all four movements. The extent of this cyclical organization is a mark of Liszt's tone poems, another possible influence, as well as an echo of Schumann's Symphony No. 4. The transformation of the opening motto into a chorale for the coda of the finale suggests an image of sleep, death, or even redemption. As a gesture it similar to the "celestial music" at the end of Berlioz's La Damnation de Faust, for instance, or Wotan's sending Brünnhilde to sleep at the end of Die Walküre. Many of these points of reference are outside of the symphony, coming from operas and tone poems, perhaps indicating the degree to which Brahms was setting his own mark on the genre.
However, most critics at the time still looked to Beethoven's symphonies as the first point of comparison. Some, like Hugo Wolf, were disappointed:
As the symphony of a second Beethoven it is an utter failure. For what we must require of a second Beethoven is precisely what is wholly lacking in Brahms: originality.
Given many similarities in structure or character to the work of fellow late-Romantic composers, one might be inclined to agree with Wolf. Originality, however, can be defined in many ways and need not always be the defining element of greatness. Eduard Hanslick praised Brahms's new symphony as a fitting heir to Beethoven's Third Symphony, the Eroica:
Its musical characteristics recall the healthy soundness of Beethoven's second period, never the eccentricities of his last. And here and there are suggestions of the romantic twilight of Schumann and Mendelssohn.
Hanslick also certainly thought the work was distinctive, claiming that among Brahms's symphonies so far it was "artistically the most perfect." Not only was the form clear and concise, but it showed originality as Hanslick defined it:
The orchestration is richer in novel and charming combinations. In ingenious modulations it is equal to the best of Brahms's works; and in the free association of contrary rhythms, of which Brahms is so fond and in the handling of which he is such a master, it has the virtue of not seeking effects at the cost of intelligibility."
In other words, while living up to the legacy of Beethoven, the Third Symphony is also definitively Brahms.