Johannes Brahms - Symphony No. 3

First Movement video
Second Movement video

Primarily a chamber music composer, Brahms only wrote four symphonies (and only 9 other works for orchestra), but all are staples of the repertoire of every orchestra from the youngest youth symphony to world-class orchestras. While classical in form, the pieces contain expressive marks on par with Brahms' main rival - Richard Wagner. Rhythmically, Brahms was decades ahead of his contemporaries. Often a particular line in one voice can be interpreted two different ways rhythmically, and through much of his work there are different meters in the music occurring simultaneously. Hemiolas and shifting the meter by one beat in the bar are favorite techniques of his. It is easy to get lost in some places even when you know the piece well, so counting is of paramount importance. Sometimes you will have to count the meter written in your head while you play the meter of the music or phrase through your instrument. Two general phrasing points to remember about Brahms are: upbeats almost always belong to the note following them and should be played expressively, and dolce in Brahms is his cue to warm the sound and play expressively - it is almost as if he uses dolce where other composers use espressivo, so the difference between the two markings is not great. Phrasing in Brahms can be done many different ways and still be “correct.” Therefore, among other things, the difference between dolce and espressivo is up to you, but I don’t recommend playing dolce in the simple and sweet manner that you would with other composers’ music.

On virtually every clarinet audition, the 3rd Symphony of Brahms is packed with juicy clarinet solos and rhythmic trickiness. Beginning at letter B in the first movement is a passage often heard on auditions. Leading the woodwinds, the clarinet must play expressive hairpins within an overall cresc., and the subito p in measure 26. Add a little push beyond the long hairpin going into bar 25, and again a little push towards the second C#. The true solo begins on the G at the end of measure 25, and should be where the subito p is played. However, this is where you need to project even more. In the orchestra the problem is easily solved by playing approximately the same dynamic, and in an audition you don't have anyone to project over - so you can play a real subito p. Bar 26 can be a simple hairpin up and down, but it is much nicer if you make something of the high notes. A nice thing to do is sort of a loop in your phrasing where you back off a little in volume just at the high end as you slow down ever so slightly. This is like a roller coaster that slows down as it reaches the top of its loop and seems to hover before it falls back down. This is, of course, a move that happens in the blink of an eye, and is subtle; but it will be apparent, and make the moment quite special. Slurring the entire bar is often done, which makes the line smoother. You may play your high Eb with Thumb - Register Key and throat A key if it's not too flat - this keeps everything in the same partial. The next four bars are at accompaniment dynamics, and there is a soli in measure 32 which usually has a placed sixth beat and downbeat of bar 33. Then quickly switch to your A clarinet for the major solo of the movement.

The A solo is ambiguously marked mezzo voce, grazioso, and 9/4 time. Use an easy, almost mellow tone without pressure, and have a moderate dance feeling. Make your articulations light so that they don't wreck the line. Some people even slur from the second beat in bar 36 to the first beat in bar 37, where the first sub-phrase break is. The same pattern can be done in measure 37, slurring from the second note to the bar-line. Phrasing in the first bar is nice if you drive gracefully to the E, hang suspended for a tiny moment, backing away through the eighth-notes down to the A in bar 37. Start the second beat of 37 with a tiny rf, and drive the same way, but keep moving through the eighth notes rising above p before you make the subito pp. Still within the new dynamic, stress the A and back away to the G, and follow the pattern as before, mimicking bar 36. Measure 39 begins with an extension-development of the eighth-note cell in a hemiola. This means the beats of the music in measure 39 are three half notes followed by a dotted half note. Make an expressive hairpin through the quarter-notes. The first four measure phrase ends with the downbeat of bar 40 and you rise back to p on the start of the new phrase on the second beat. Separating this phrase with a breath if you need it is OK, but be sure not to connect them in any case. With the new phrase, the woodwinds join you for two bars. Measure 41 has the same musical-rhythmic pattern as measure 39. Stress the F at the end of the bar and back away to the coming pp. The dynamic quandary in measure 42 can be solved as it was in measure 26, depending on your performance situation. If you like, you may structure the rhythm as follows in this bar: dotted-half, dotted-quarter, dotted-quarter, dotted-half. Some of the enduring beauty of Brahms is his rhythmic ambiguity. This measure is equally beautiful with a plain 3 pulse. 43 has a clear hemiola at the beginning, however, and a slightly delayed placement of the separated notes that form the cadence at the end of the bar. C is an oboe solo that you answer exactly in the following bar. The rhythmic structure of measure 45 and 46 are a dotted-quarter note followed by a hemiola. Attacking the high D is easier if you prepare mentally and physically in the bar before and play p, not pp. Just play simply and it will be beautiful. The separated quarter notes of bar 46 (in hemiola) are usually done with a small rit. It is here that most auditions leave the first movement.

The music is back in 2 by measure 49, but by the time the clarinet comes back in, the pulse has been shifted by a quarter note with the phrased downbeat feeling coming on 3 and 6 of each bar. The pulse narrows to a half-note in length two bars before D, and is again shifted by the end of bar 60. This kind of rhythmic trickiness continues, and is easy to spot with a little attention to the part and the music around you. The next big solo, again on A clarinet, is a re-cap of the second theme, starting at bar 149. The main differences start in bar 152 with the snap rhythm on the 7th quarter-note. Play it exactly as it's marked: quickly and short - anything else would be clumsy. Brighten the mood as you play the new phrase in measure 153 and make a smooth ascent to the E without taking time. Half-holing the E may help you here. Drop your dynamic during the long tone in 154 and play the rest as before. This solo is sometimes asked on auditions too.

A difficult tutti passage that is on some auditions begins in measure 173. Remember the pulse has been shifted back a quarter-note. The missing beat is recovered in measure 177. Try to play ff without screeching in the high register, and be as smooth as possible. I prefer to play my high G like an overblown B above the staff to stay in the same partial - just make sure you're not flat. You may stretch very slightly around the high G to make it nice, but only in auditions. Whatever the conductor wants in the orchestra is what you give him/her. When heard, this passage usually stops in bar 178.

The first 23 bars of the second movement are a clarinet solo, and encompass the entire main theme. It is marked Andante, not Adagio, and should be nearly 80 to the quarter. Though it has been done as slow as 60, that is no longer the fashion. Listen to many different recordings to pick your tempo. Make sure you project over the string without rising above p. There is the seemingly contradictory marking of espressivo semplice. You can do much with nuance on a small level and make the big moments big without contradicting either of those markings. Articulation should be very slight, but there. Do not let it wreck the line. There are also many instances of one note being both the end of one phrase (or sub-phrase) and the beginning of another. The first bar is such a case. The first four notes are very simple and just an embellishment of the D. The A, however, is both the end of the complete motivic cell of the first measure and the beginning of the A-B alteration. There are many gradations of interpretation that can be done with the A: It clearly belongs to the notes before it (and is even under the same slur) and you can play it just that way; it also clearly belongs to the notes after it and you can play it that way; alternatively, you can make a very quick and subtle phrase-direction change during the A merely by switching the way you think about it while you're playing it. In any case, there should certainly be a small hairpin down when you descend from the D to the A. The A-B alteration is again semplice and the A at the end of bar 2 is again part of two sub-phrases. After you approach it like just another of the alternations, you then should lead with it through the eighth-notes toward the next bar. The down beat of bar 3 is again part of the descending eighths before it and part of the cell that follows. Bar 3 has another of Brahms' rhythms that can be psychoanalyzed to death. I believe it sounds good if each of the dotted-eighth/sixteenth cells is done with ascending terraced dynamics. Also put a subtle stress accent on the eighth and/or dip at the end of it. This created tiny nuance loops leading as you terrace up to the E. The E should be played with the hairpin down leading to a very soft D, and can be done creating another small loop at the end. The D should be wistful in its dolce expression. It is important for the architecture of the whole solo that you set up this kind of a resolution now to match the more expressive ones later.

Measure 5 is like measure 1 except the A leads a lot more to the next bar and you should make the 6th very expressive and rise to the top limit of p by the time you get to the F#. This enables you to fall off with the nice hairpin, especially on the descending 5th. Given the pitches and articulation in bar 6 it is clear there is a phrase break between the 3rd and 4th beats. Bar 7 must be more expressive than bar 3 so that you can pull back further on the hairpin down, because bar 8 is a deceptive cadence requiring even more bittersweetness. Measures 9 and 10 are like 5 and 6 only even more expressive because of the octave leap now and the additional note in bar 10. A clear sub-phrase break exists before the dotted eighth/sixteenth cell which is developed in bar 11. Play the second one with a mood and color echo, and try to avoid the cheaper idea of a dynamic echo. Measure 12 are the biggest hairpins of the solo, rising above p and again resolving to a deceptive cadence. The oboe takes over for two very beautiful measures, and letter A should be played simply for two measures. When you descend the 5th at the end of bar 16, go all the way down to a colorless, sotto voce pp. You can be very soft in an audition, but make sure you still project (without pressure) in the orchestra. These 8 beats are to be done without expression at all. This contrast makes all the other expression seem more meaningful. You may also think of these eight notes as two shifted 4/4 bars. Immediately rise back to p in dynamic with color and expression at the end of bar 18. A moderate sized hairpin is now appropriate - remember you're setting up the expression in bar 21 here. The pickups to 21 should be healthy and signal right away that this is the final end of the solo (and the first complete cadence). A big hairpin up, hanging suspended on the F# with a little hairpin down, and more hairpin down to the cadence closes out the solo nicely.

None of the other solos from this movement are on auditions, but there is plenty left for the solo clarinet in this piece. Letter C is a solo to be played mysterioso. Place the eighth-notes in measure 42 slightly, and move the down hairpin in bar 44 to the last beat of the bar, driving to it. You may do a little rit. at the end of 54 after your ornament. The final statement of the main theme is for you alone again. Measure 122 starts a long chain of cells connected by notes belonging both to the phrases before and after them. Turn the direction of the note around with little swells down then up, and make a lot of expression in the augmentation bar 127. You should be able to go until the first beat of 129 without a breath, and you can take one there. If you can't, sneak a little one at the end of 126. There is a little lift after the first beat of 130, and the woodwinds join you for the rest of the bar.

The clarinet has some lovely counter-melodies to the main theme in the third movement, the first being at letter B and led into by a clarinet duet. Make sure to take the same dynamic and tempo the second gives you, so that you sound like one. Let the high D evaporate naturally. At B, have a little pulse on your syncopations and lead up to the high note, then fall away on the sixteenth-notes. This passage is very expressive. After G you have another dramatic counterpoint. The sixteenth-note after the tie should not be rushed and is the most expressive note, a slight stretching of it is good, but steal time from the other notes or the whole passage will drag. Make the most expression of the wide intervals. 130 should be a little calmer and softer, while 132 is more expressive. After that, follow the line dynamically. Make a little break before the pickups to 136 and play these four notes very expressively. The notes that follow should be more emotional echo than dynamic, but do play slightly softer too.

The last movement begins with strings playing sotto voce, flautando, and very smooth. When you take over the theme, do the same. The accents at the end of the passage are very quick pressure accents, like the sob of a jilted lover. Do not be harsh with them. The pickup to 34 can be played in the above mentioned 3rd partial fingering for an easier entrance if it's not too flat. Just be sure to be pp, and not late! A huge cresc. follows. There are some tricky technical things in the tutti passages, but the rest is self-evident.