Born 1833, Hamburg, Germany
Died 1897, Vienna, Austria
Symphony No. 2 in D Major, op. 73 (1877)
As tortured as Beethoven was with his opera, Johannes Brahms was tortured with the symphony. Brahms maintained that Beethoven had elevated the symphonic genre to a stratum that was inconceivable to succeed. “You cannot imagine what it is like to hear the footsteps of such a giant behind you,” he famously stated. Brahms’s torment is acutely obvious when studying the time-line of his first symphony: it was twenty-one years between initial sketches and the finished product. The first symphony’s unfortunate moniker of “Beethoven’s Tenth” (dubbed by the conductor Hans von Bülow) was thankfully not enough to dissuade Brahms from future symphonic endeavors.
Brahms wrote his Second Symphony in the summer of 1877, just a little over a year after the long awaited premiere of his First Symphony. Brahms wrote all four of his symphonies in this pairing manner (1876 and 1877 for symphonies one and two; 1883 and 1885 for symphonies three and four). Brahms wrote the Second Symphony while vacationing in Pörtschach am Wörthersee in the Austrian Alps, an admittedly idyllic and bucolic setting. The Second Symphony is often called his pastoral symphony – Brahms’s answer to Beethoven’s Sixth. This is really not an accurate comparison for there is no program for Brahms’s symphony (the champion of absolute music would not have it!) as there is in Beethoven’s, nor are there specific sections that reference nature (i.e. bird calls, etc.) as in the Beethoven. Nevertheless, because the symphony lacks the Sturm und Drang typically associated with Brahms’s symphonies, and due to the location in which it was composed, it is often unofficially referred to as Brahms’s Pastoral Symphony.
Brahms knew what the public expected of his symphonic music and decided to have a little fun at their expense. He told many in Vienna that his new symphony was somber and tragic, going so far as to tell his longtime publisher, Fritz Simrock, that, “The new Symphony is so melancholy that you will not be able to bear it.” When the work premiered in 1877 with the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Hans Richter, the audience was shocked at the lightness of the D Major Symphony.
The first movement is written in 3/4 time, an unusual time signature for most symphonic first movements, save Beethoven’s “Eroica.” It begins with a three-note motive in the low strings from which the entire movement is spun. The second theme is introduced in the celli and is reminiscent of Brahms’s Lullaby. The theme is lush and dark in color, but the mood is still bright. The movement is not without its flashes of darkness, but these are brief and give way to the overall radiance of the symphony.
The second movement attempts to challenge this radiance. It is the only true Adagio in Brahms’s symphonies and although it is reflective and poignant, it does not carry the pathos of much of Brahms’s works. The movement begins with an impossibly long phrase in the celli accompanied by interspersed chords and melodic fragments in the winds. The second section is underscored by a lighter theme in the highly syncopated statement by the woodwinds. The movement constantly changes from dark to light and back again, but never falls into true Brahmsian despair.
The third movement opens simply and elegantly with a folk-like melody in the oboe. The movement has less of a scherzo feel and leans more toward a minuet or intermezzo. The trio sections are brisker and have more of a scherzo sensibility, containing strong accents and offbeat passages pitting strings against woodwinds.
The Finale opens with a soft undulating melody played in unison by the strings. The movement is extremely contrapuntal, containing sections of canon and fugato. There is an overall feeling of moto perpetuo, and even the slower sections seem to be constantly moving toward the brilliant conclusion and resounding final D Major chord.
For further reading see, Late Idyll: The Second Symphony of Johannes Brahms by Reinhold Brinkmann (Harvard University Press, 1997).