Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

Born May 7, 1833 in Hamburg Germany.
Died April 3, 1897 in Vienna Austria.

Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 73

Composed in the summer of 1877

First Performance: December 30, 1877 at the Vienna Musikverein with Has Richter conducting the Vienna Philharmonic.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, and strings.

Brahms did not complete his first symphony until 1876 after well over a decade (or two decades if you count false starts) of work. It was almost as if he felt Beethoven looking over his shoulder. He once wrote to a friend that “You have no conception of how the likes of us feel when we hear the tramp of a giant like him behind us.” Indeed that symphony is in many ways a tribute to Beethoven. A weary Brahms responded to the zillionth person who compared a theme in the First with the Ode to Joy theme that “Das bemerkt ja schon jeder Esel.” (“Every jackass notices that!”)

In contrast to the long gestation of the First, the Second Symphony was composed at breakneck speed. He wrote much of the symphony during the summer of 1877 in the Austrian town of Pörtschach, on the Wörthersee where he would write the Violin Concerto the following summer and completed it in October.

The surroundings certainly had a positive effect on Brahms. He remarked to Eduard Hanslick that “So many melodies fly about, one must be careful not to tread on them.”

The dark brooding mood and struggle of the First Symphony is swept aside by the bright, cheerful pastoral aspects of the Second.

The comparisons between Beethoven’s Fifth and Sixth Symphonies and Brahms’ First and Second are as old as the works themselves. Therefore taking the cue from the sunny disposition of Brahms’s Second many writers have referred to it as his Pastorale Symphony.

Before the first performance Brahms had a little fun with his friends with misleading statements such as “The new symphony is so melancholy, that you will not be able to bear it. I have never before written anything so sad and mournful.” And to his publisher Simrock, “You must put a black edge round the score to give an outward show of grief.”

There are four movements in the symphony:

I Allegro non troppo

II Adagio non troppo

III Allegretto grazioso

IV Allegro con spirito

The first movement opens quietly with a three note motif (a) in the ‘celli. This is followed a measure later by another motif (b) in the horns. The first (a) motif is repeated then answered by a new motif (c) in the winds. In these first measures Brahms lays out the material for the entire work.

Example 1. First movement motifs

This opening section is followed by a long flowing theme presented first by the violins. Careful listening reveals that it is based on the all three motifs! Motif A starts with the second note, motif B is the rising figure and the beginning of motif C is the final notes in reverse.

Example 2. Motifs in the theme

After a transition, we hear the violas and ‘celli play a new – and for us well known – cantando second theme.

Example 3. Cantando second theme

The exposition introduces a few more variations of the motifs before repeating. There is an intense development section where the motifs are fragmented (we hear just the first two notes of motif B repeated by the full orchestra), inverted and rhythmically altered.

The quiet coda marked tranquillo resembles a waltz (it is still in 3/4) with its boom-chuck-boom-chuck accompaniment. The movement ends quietly.

The Adagio second movement is less a succession of simple phrases and more like “musical prose”. The underlying rhythmic structure here defies regular four bar phrases. The mood is now more solemn. It begins with the ‘celli playing an espressivo theme in their upper register which contains motifs that are subjected to the same developing variation techniques as in the first movement. At the same time the bassoons play a mirror-like counter-theme.

Example 4. Second movement

The third movement begins as an Allegretto Ländler (a triple meter folk dance) with the oboes playing a lilting theme but then turns into a duple meter Presto scherzo – which is actually based on the same theme. This alternation establishes the pattern of the movement where the opening theme, tempo and meter are followed by a faster section.

Example 5. Third movement

The audience at the premiere was so taken with the third movement that it had to be repeated.

The finale begins quietly – sotto voce – with a flowing theme in the violins that begins with motif A that began the first movement.

Example 6. Fourth movement

In many preceding variations of motif A the fourth note (a falling interval of a fourth) is omitted. Here its outline is present but perhaps a bit obscured by being “filled in” with a few neighboring notes. A few measures later a series of falling fourths are repeated which asserts that they will become important. There is a syncopated second theme introduced softly by the strings before the close of the exposition.

Example 7. Syncopated Second theme

The development section begins as if the exposition is repeating. Unlike the first movement the exposition does not repeat and Brahms has just played a trick on you! The themes are developed vigorously. The bustle is interrupted by a tranquillo section in gently flowing triplets that is based on motif A. We then hear a slow almost ethereal setting of the series of falling fourths in the winds. Sound familiar? This reappears years later in the same key and setting in the first movement of Mahler’s First Symphony.

The recapitulation begins with the first theme returns quietly in the strings followed by the second theme first loudly then softly.

An extended coda begins with the trombones and tuba loudly announcing the syncopated theme. There is a brief detour as the tranquillo music returns, but this time played over the syncopated theme. After a few interrupted rushing scales the brass section boldly declaims the syncopated theme to bring the symphony to a rousing conclusion.