Brahms: Symphony No. 2

The wonderful melodies, matchless solo work in woodwind and brass—the glorious horn solo at the end of the first movement—and such persuasive architecture as pairing the sprawled, mysterious second movement with a brief and gentle third: all these things help make Brahms’s Second Symphony perfect. It is the largest of his four essays in the genre and easily the loveliest.

The first three notes we hear in the low strings, D–C#–D, say much of what follows: the curve of the motive a caress, the C  an injection of darkness. This is one of those big Brahms sonata movements with all sorts of melodies beyond the two main themes. French horns introduce the first group with a theme based on a real German lullaby; as this is drawing to conclusion, a solo timpani roll introduces the poignant cadence for the three trombones and tuba—a sonic event redolent with suggestions of old Vienna. The second group begins with more lullaby, cantando and dolce, in the violas and cellos. The tranquility of this great theme is shattered by an orchestral fanfare and literally pages of semi-development of the thematic material over a difficult pattern of syncopated eighths and sixteenths in the clarinet, horns, and violas. Only after these digressions is the closing material reached.

A stormy development emphasizes the metric tensions pent up in the themes; as Brahms begins his retreat into recapitulation, the D–C#–D quarter notes of the first measure can be heard as three half notes spread out over two measures, notably in the trombone. The coda is richly Romantic: a throbbing horn solo, dallying with the opening theme as though unwilling to be done, is at length nudged aside by the final animato, where the beat seems to slip to the right by an eighth note.

So dense is the opening gesture of the Adagio, so compelling the rise of the bassoon countermelody, that one’s attention isn’t drawn into the big cello theme until after it is well underway. The winds linger on this material in dialogue, then turn to a gracious, syncopated siciliana. The churning developmental episode lasts but a few measures; a freshly orchestrated restatement never reaches the siciliana, but veers away to resolve the implications of the unfinished development. Brahms dispels those gravities when he begins the Allegretto as a minuet. Instead of a conventional trio there is a galop, not courtly at all but a presto in two-four. The return of the minuet is broader and quite dense at its peak, yielding then to a scherzando in three-eight as second trio. The minuet now recapitulates fully, with a fine late-century sigh in the coda.

The restless initial theme of the finale clearly bodes larger things to come. In fact, it is exploded by the transition. This eventually settles back into the second theme, a broad hymn stated low in the violins and violas, one of Brahms’s best. The long exposition begins to conclude at the empty beats and syncopated tutti chords; the short, misty development retreats into a tranquillo, with bell tones on intervals from the main theme. At the point of recapitulation the theme is supposed to be even softer than before, to set off the long crescendo to peroration and coda. Here the brass have a field day, especially with the layers of trombone scales that lead to the final jubilant peals of trumpet and horn.

—D . Kern Holoman

For 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, strings

Composed summer 1877 at Pörtschach, Carinthia

First performed December 30, 1877, by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Hans Richter conducting

Published by N . Simrock (Berlin, 1878)

Duration about 45 minutes


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