Symphony No. 2 in D Major, op. 73

Composer: 

        Simply put, the composers of the nineteenth century after Beethoven tended to divide themselves into two groups.  The progressives were true “Romantics,” and were greatly influenced by the extra-musical ideas that were the subjects of contemporary literature, poetry, and painting, among others.  They devised new genres, such as the tone poems of Smetana and Liszt, the music dramas of Wagner, and the characteristic piano pieces of Chopin.  This music, to use a phrase still common among seekers of meaning in music, was about “something”--meaning something familiar to human existence

        Others, Brahms most significantly, still adhered strongly to the musical philosophy that great music was simply about “itself,” and required no extra-musical references for complete and satisfying meaning.   So, he and his ilk continued to write “pure” or “abstract” music, like sonatas and symphonies (a so-called symphony is just a sonata for orchestra).  The example of Beethoven’s music (in this tradition) loomed almost as overwhelming for Brahms, and he waited for decades after reaching musical maturity to essay his first symphony, completing it in 1876, when he was forty-three years old. It garnered sufficient success to be deemed the “Tenth,” referencing Beethoven’s nine in that genre, although it bears more comparison with Beethoven’s fifth symphony.

            Well, it didn’t take Brahms nearly so long to write his second symphony as it did the first, and the mood of the work is a strong contrast to that of the mighty seriousness of the first.  That is not to say that the second is not without a gravitas that is an essential part of the composer’s musical (and his own, for that matter) personality.  But, if anything, one could characterize this important work as “sunny.”  It’s common to call it his “pastoral” symphony.  That being said, it’s still Brahms, and therefore infused with melancholy—not tragedy, not sadness, just deep reflection upon the human condition.  It was composed during the summer of 1877, while Brahms was vacationing in a particularly beautiful part of southern Austria, surrounded inspiring mountains and tranquil lakes.  He certainly understood the work’s general cheerfulness, but playfully teased his publisher about the nature of the symphony by claiming that it was such a dark and gloomy work that the score should be edged in black.  We know better, of course.

            The first movement opens with a simple little four-note motive in the low strings that absolutely forms the core of the piece.  Only a consummate craftsman like Brahms could do so much with such a simple idea.   The motive pervades the movement, and it’s a cheerful and rewarding process to spot as many variants of it as the music unfolds.   As soon as we hear that motive, romantic horns—evoking the bucolic setting—play another essential motive.  We’ll hear a lot of each.  The warmth and optimism of the opening has no sooner started, than unexpectedly there is a soft, menacing timpani roll and quiet, sinister passage in the trombones.  Brahms explained, though he had intended to do without the trombones in the first movement, he couldn’t resist depicting the “black wings” constantly flapping above us all.  Soon thereafter, the alert listener will spot Brahms’ famous “Cradle Song” melody appearing as a major melodic element in the movement.  The middle of the movement is a vigorous working out of all that we have heard, including some startling real nastiness in the trombones, that remind us that all is not happiness and light.  A varied review of all the familiar wraps up the movement, and we end calmly and securely in a soft chord of affirmation.

            The second movement is one of Brahms’ loveliest creations, beginning with the cello section spinning out a long-breathed, elegant line.  The lyricism continues with other equally attractive tunes, and after a short development, the movement ends as tranquilly and softly as does the first.

            The third movement is a graceful evocation of a lighthearted walk and scamper through the out of doors, to my mind.  There are two contrasting sections that alternate:  the first a gentle stroll—but almost slowly waltzing, and the second a rough, rather Beethoven-like scurry.   Yet, for all the motion, this movement, too, like the first two, ends quietly.

            After all of this placidity, the time has come to “let’er rip,” and the last movement opens in the strings with the quiet intensity of summer lighting on the horizon.   We just know that this is going to be a romp, and it is.  A few simple, memorable themes carry this thing along, and while it is tempting to track them as Brahms works them around and about—it’s not really about that process at all.  It’s about his uncanny ability to build and release tension, to kick you about with unexpected accents, to cross and re-cross the meters as he builds a tight, and remarkable architecture that drives in a fury to the end.  The so-called second theme becomes the primary element that relentlessly carries us to the final magnificent statement in the trumpets, and a blaze of a D major chord in the now optimistic trombones brings it all to a conclusion.  There are few moments in all of music so glorious.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan