Brahms came late to the symphony, finishing his first at the age of 42 after 14 years of rumination. He knew that composing a symphony meant contending with the legacy of Beethoven. Brahms’s First Symphony was dubbed “Beethoven’s Tenth,” owing to the obvious echo of the vocal “Ode to Joy” from the Ninth in the purely instrumental chorale theme of Brahms’s finale. And his Third Symphony was likened to Beethoven’s Third, the “Eroica.”
“What a work! What a poem!” Brahms’s confidante Clara Schumann, widow of the composer Robert, exclaimed of the Third Symphony. “Everything springs to life, everything breathes good cheer; it is really exquisite!” The leading music critic of the day, Eduard Hanslick, concurred: “Many music lovers may prefer the titanic force of the First, others the untroubled charm of the Second. But the Third strikes me as artistically the most perfect.” He admired its compactness—the Third is indeed the briefest of Brahms’s four symphonies—and its “plastic” themes, which are fluidly and flexibly developed.
The opening theme of the first movement, introduced by three ascending notes in the brass and winds that form a hallmark, returns at the conclusion of the finale. In contrast to the surging, dramatic first theme in the strings, the second theme appears in the winds, with a drone accompaniment, and exudes a simple charm. The subject of the slow movement is likewise in a pastoral vein, its hymn-like texture evoking Brahms’s many works for chorus. A friendly exchange between winds and strings leads to a quick climax. A contrasting theme for clarinet and bassoon, as mysterious as the first is guileless, appears as a solemn, melancholy chant. Throughout, passages of choral singing alternate with a much lonelier line. The third movement, in simple ternary form (ABA), juxtaposes the major and minor modes. The finale begins and ends quietly but briskly: The first theme is unharmonized, played in unison as a single line, and the movement seems to take definite shape only with the strike of the kettledrum and sharp outbursts in the strings. The arching second theme in the major mode is heard initially in the low strings. Much later the movement refers back to the Andante, but the real epiphany arrives with the return of the opening hallmark in the oboes and horns. The main theme of the first movement then reappears to round off the entire work in an unexpectedly gentle guise.
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In 1853, composer Robert Schumann announced a promising young talent to readers of the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, the leading musical journal of the day. “Sooner or later,” Schumann imagined, “someone would and must appear, fated to give us the ideal expression of the times, one who would not gain his mastery by gradual stages, but rather would spring fully armed like Minerva from the head of Jove.” His prophecy proved true: He had discovered Beethoven’s heir. “His name is Johannes Brahms, from Hamburg,” Schumann declared. “He carries all the marks of one who has received a call” and would take up the symphonic mantle from Beethoven.