Music has no subject beyond the combinations of notes we hear, for music speaks not only by means of sounds, it speaks nothing but sound.Whether a particular piece of music can be considered absolute or programmatic is not so easy to determine. Is there such a thing as music that is purely absolute, with no reference within it to anything more than sound? When Beethoven referred to the theme that began his 5th Symphony as 'fate knocking at the door', the composer himself put a non-musical meaning to the theme and perhaps the entire symphony. This doesn't make it a work with a program like a Liszt symphonic poem, but then again it is not a piece of absolute music in the strict sense. The argument between absolute versus program music is an attempt to pigeon-hole works into one or the other, and at least in the late 19th century, a way to try and make one kind of music superior to the other. In that regard the whole discussion (and historical arguments) about absolute music are moot points.
Brahms was a highly private man and very rarely gave a clue to any outside meanings in his music, but that doesn't mean there weren't any. Some of his close friends were able to determine what the meaning of certain pieces may have been, and so it was with his friend Clara Schumann, widow of the composer Robert Schumann. Brahms was a devoted friend to her after her husband died, some think to the point that his friendship went beyond the platonic. Brahms valued her musical opinion very much and would send his new compositions to her. Clara noticed that the notes F-Aflat -F were the top notes of the three chords that open the 3rd Symphony. These three notes are the first letters of Brahms' motto, in German Frei aber froh which translates to Free but happy. Brahms had adopted the motto in response to the motto of his friend Joseph Joachim Frei aber einsam which translates to Free but lonely. Brahms used his three note motto in all four movements in different guises.
Symphony No. 3 In F Major is in 4 movements:
I. Allegro con brio - The three note motto begins the movement and is found throughout, sometimes in the treble, sometimes as a bass line. This motto is full of conflict from the start as the A-flat sandwiched between the two F's shifts the music off of F major (A is natural, not flat), to F minor, where the A is flat. This conflict occurs on and off through the movement. The second theme is in A-flat major, and is of a more gentle nature. The music works its way through different material to the repeat of the exposition. The development section continues the interplay between major and minor, especially when the gentle second theme is changed to minor mode with increased tension and drama. The recapitulation plays through the themes and in the coda it gradually winds down and the music ends with a gentle repeat of the opening motto.
II. Andante - Within the theme of this movement in C major is the three note motto. After the initial theme is played through, a second more passionate theme emerges. The motto keeps appearing throughout the movement, but the gentle nature of the music doesn't allow it any of the drama that the listener already knows it is capable of. The movement ends with the initial theme played very quietly.
III. Poco allegretto - In C minor, the music is in scherzo form, but is not a scherzo in mood. The melody is a sad, gentle dance. The three note motto is to be found in the accompaniment. There is a brief middle section in A-flat major that is lighter in mood. The dance begins again and progresses to a short coda. The movement ends quietly with string chords played pizzicato over woodwind accompaniment.
IV. Allegro - The last movement renews the passion and drama of the first as the shifting between major and minor mode resumes. Brahms uses his own style of sonata form to present and develop themes that lead to the coda that contains some of the most beautiful music Brahms ever wrote. With muted strings in the background, woodwinds and brass gently move the music to a final unwinding as the three note motto is played one last time.