Symphony No. 2 in D major, op. 73
2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, strings
notes by James Keays
I. Allegro non troppo
II. Adagio non troppo
III. Allegretto grazioso
IV. Allegro con spirito
Composed 1877. First performance: December 30, 1877, Vienna Philharmonic. Hans Richter, conductor.
In outward appearance, the career of Johannes Brahms seemed enviable. Here was a composer, after all, who enjoyed enormous successes during the last twenty years of his life. Despite his achievements, however, he often found it difficult to find a stylistic place within the artistic current that swept Europe during the latter part of the 19th century. At many times, he considered himself to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Having been born into the creative cauldron of German Romanticism, he found the movement losing momentum and fragmenting as he reached musical maturity. Next, he found his music being championed as an alternative to that of Wagner’s. It was not a comfortable role for him to play. Even as a young man, he was forced to live up to the expectations of others. No less than Robert Schumann called him “one who would not show us his mastery in a gradual development, but like Minerva sprung full-armed from the head of Zeus.” In the end, he chose to retreat into the comforting confines of a post-Romanticism heavily tinged with the sounds and shapes of Classicism.
When a young German composer approached the task of writing symphonies, it was impossible to work outside the shadow of Beethoven. Schumann was able to write only four such works. Even the strongest cannot approach the weakest of Beethoven’s. The other Romantics—Mendelssohn, Liszt, and Berlioz (a German in his use of the orchestra)—found it necessary to rely heavily on programmatic devices as a way of developing a new symphonic style that could avoid comparison with Beethoven’s. Brahms himself summed up the problem by stating, “You will never know how the likes of us feel when we hear the tramp of a giant like Beethoven behind us.” Despite such misgivings, he began sketching a symphony as early as 1857, only to transform it at the last moment into the Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor. The work failed and was so roundly hissed at the premiere that the experience discouraged Brahms not only from writing another symphony, but also from pursuing a career as a concert pianist. It took fifteen years for him to find the courage to try again. His Symphony No. 1 was a success. The creative floodgates finally opened, and Symphony No. 2 was completed less than a year later.
The Symphony No. 2 in D major is one of the most cheerful of Brahms’ mature works, so much so that it is often called his “Pastoral”, in obvious reference to Beethoven’s symphony with the same name. Its bucolic nature may be due to the fact that it was composed during Brahms’ summer holiday in 1877 while living on the shores of a beautiful Austrian lake.
The first performance, on December 30, 1877, was entrusted to the respected Hans Richter and the Vienna Philharmonic. The overwhelmingly positive reception greatly cheered Brahms and marked the beginning of his reputation as a promising symphonist. Of the four symphonies he was to write, it was his personal favorite.
The first movement begins with three notes in the cellos and basses that constitute a motto theme heard repeatedly in various guises throughout the work. There follows a pastoral second theme introduced by the horns and completed by the woodwinds. These two themes and a gentle third theme are then extended and developed at length throughout the movement. A tranquil coda features an extraordinarily expressive solo for the horn and a restatement of the opening theme. The second movement also makes use of three principal themes. The first two are heard simultaneously—one descends in the cellos, while the other ascends in the bassoons. The remaining theme, syncopated and scored for the woodwinds, is lighter in style and character. An intermezzo, rather than a scherzo, serves as a third movement. Here the first theme is presented by the oboe with pizzicato accompaniment. Two trios follow, separated by a restatement of the principal theme. The final movement begins with a quiet transparent melody in the strings. After repetitions in the woodwinds, a triumphant setting of the theme for the full orchestra dominates the texture to the end. As if to make sure there is no doubt about the tonic key, the last measures culminate in a fortissimo D major chord played by the trombones.