Hans Richter, who conducted the premiere of the symphony, proclaimed it to be Brahms’ Eroica. The symphony was well received, more so than his Second Symphony. Although Richard Wagner had died earlier that year, the public feud between Brahms and Wagner had not yet subsided. Wagner enthusiasts tried to interfere with the symphony’s premiere, and the conflict between the two factions nearly brought about a duel.
After each performance, Brahms polished his score further, until it was published in May 1884. His friend the influential music critic Eduard Hanslick said, “Many music lovers will prefer the titanic force of the First Symphony; others, the untroubled charm of the Second, but the Third strikes me as being artistically the most nearly perfect.”
A musical motto consisting of three notes, F–A♭–F, was significant to Brahms. In 1853 his friend Joseph Joachim had taken as his motto “Free, but lonely” (in German Frei aber einsam), and from the notes represented by the first letters of these words, F–A–E, Schumann, Brahms and Dietrich had jointly composed a violin sonata dedicated to Joachim. At the time of the Third Symphony, Brahms was a fifty-year-old bachelor who declared himself to be Frei aber froh, “Free but happy”. His F–A–F motto, and some altered variations of it, can be heard throughout the symphony.
At the beginning of the symphony the motto is the melody of the first three measures, and it is the bass line underlying the main theme in the next three. The motto persists, either boldly or disguised, as the melody or accompaniment throughout the movement. For the third movement – poco allegretto instead of the rapid scherzo standard in 19th-century symphony – Brahms created a unique kind of third movement that is moderate in tempo (poco allegretto) and intensely lyrical in character. The finale is a lyrical, passionate movement, rich in melody that is intensely exploited, altered, and developed. The movement ends with reference to the motto heard in the first movement – one which quotes a motif heard in Schumann’s Symphony No. 3, “Rhenish” in the first movement just before the second theme enters in the recapitulation – then fades away to a quiet ending.