Johannes Brahms was born in Hamburg in 1833, the son of a double bass player. The boy was fortunate in being born into a loving and understanding family; fortunate also in the choice of teachers who were able to develop his early musical gifts. To supplement the family’s income, at the age of 13 the young innocent found employment as a pianist in local dance halls, taverns, and a dock-side brothel.
Youthful friendships with the Hungarian violinists Remenyi and Joachim found Brahms touring Germany as accompanist and composer and playing in chamber music groups. But it was as a composer that Brahms knew his future lay. Broad-shouldered, short of stature, at the age of 20 this flaxen-haired youth knocked on the door of Robert Schumann, who immediately recognised in him a budding genius. Later, Brahms’ life-long friendship with Schumann’s widow Clara is part of music’s folk lore.
During those early years composing piano pieces, chamber works, songs and choral pieces, and dogged by the epithet that he was Beethoven’s natural successor, he was reluctant to indulge himself in orchestral writing until he was confident of his own abilities. It was not until 1876 after he had settled in Vienna that he launched upon the world his First Symphony. The Second followed quickly, but further six years (to 1883) elapsed before No 3 appeared.
It may not always be realised that all Brahms’ major orchestral works, with the exception of the 1st Piano Concerto were written between 1873 and 1887, the final ten years being, as he began, devoted to piano pieces, chamber music and songs. This year we celebrate the centenary of Brahms’ death.
1st movement. ALLEGRO CON BRIO
In his youth Brahms adopted a motto “frei aber froh” (free but happy). It is the initials of these three words – F.A.F. – that form the three-note motto theme of the Symphony and are played over the opening three bars by woodwind and brass. Although this Symphony is given as being in F major, Brahms chooses to flatten the A, but in the immediate descending reply from the strings, the A is restored to its natural. This ambiguity pervades the movement and gives it its character.
The second subject has a radiance and charm of its own. It is in A major and 9/4 time, and is initially in the care of woodwind and strings (omitting violins). During the development Brahms works upon the motto theme until, when it is firmly in F major, the movement ends in quiet resignation.
2nd movement. ANDANTE
Marked “Semplice”. A folk-like tune is given out by the clarinets supported by bassoons, with violin and cello interjections. A feature of this movement is the deft scoring, somewhere between “chamber music” and full orchestra. Trombones are used with great restraint; trumpets and timpani remain silent. The movement ends gently and quietly.
3rd movement. POCO ALLEGRETTO
The “scherzo” movement of the symphony opens in C minor and a Schubertian melancholy gently pervades the music. The opening theme is entrusted to the celli. It is a characteristic of bluff, gruff Brahms to place his melodies in lower registers. The cello melody is later taken over by the French horns.
The trio section has two themes – one in chords for woodwind and the other for strings. The opening theme reappears re-orchestrated, and the symphony’s three-note motto variant is prominent as the movement reaches a forte climax just six bars from, yet again, a “piano” ending.
4th movement. ALLEGRO
The final movement opens in F minor, marked Sotto Voce (“subdued voice”) and scored for strings and bassoon. Yet despite the modest forces employed, these opening bars suggest that Brahms means to impress, and a substantial symphonic movement is being opened up before us.
This movement is one of complex variety. The motto theme continues to be heard in varied form in the woodwind until trombones introduce a quasi-chorale theme which is then entrusted to woodwind and strings, and is prominent in the following development.
Following the return of the opening theme, a joyful robust tune in C major is heard in the French horns and strings. A grand development follows, combining motifs of the opening and chorale. Then the C major tune returns and is played out by the full orchestra, only to subside.
Muted violas now present a triplet version of the movement’s opening bars in a remote minor key. After this, Brahms works upon all his themes leading to a climax, although not a cataclysmic one. Then, with the recall of the motto theme, the music floats away into a Brahmsian quietude.