Brahms Symphony No.2 in D, Op. 73

The place where Brahms wrote his Second Symphony is not one of those ordinary alpine resort towns. It is extraordinary how many important musical compositions were conceived around the 20-km2 Wörthersee in southern Austria. On the right shore in Maiernigg, Mahler composed his 4th - 8th symphonies at an astonishingly steady pace; on the left shore in Velden, Alban Berg wrote arguably his two most popular works, the opera Lulu and the Violin Concerto; on the north shore in Pörtschach, Brahms composed his Second Symphony, the Violin Concerto, the G-major Violin Sonata, and the voice motet “Warum ist das Licht gegeben den Mühseligen?”.

The fact that the economically disciplined Brahms was willing to summer at the expensive Wörthersee, which at the time was exclusive to wealthy Viennese families, already tells you something about the mid-aged musician - he was doing very well. A short while ago, his widely acclaimed tenure as the Director of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde had brought his reputation to pre-eminence among the Viennese musical establishment. Indeed, by then Brahms no longer needed to give concert tours as a primary source of income, and could instead concentrate on his own compositions. One year before, in 1876, he premiered his much anticipated first symphony, finally fulfilling Schumann’s prophecy of Brahms as the next great symphonist after Beethoven. And he was even offered an honorary doctorate by the University of Cambridge, only to be rejected because he didn’t want to make the trip to England...

This biographical background, coupled with the harmlessly idyllic scene of Wörthersee, might explain the ‘ease’ one usually associates with the Second Symphony.  After all, it was written in one stroke in that summer, a huge surprise to the world as its immediate predecessor took the man nearly two decades. Also, unlike the troubled premiere of the first symphony, the second was an almost instant hit.  Brahms himself conducted a famously high-flying performance in his hometown, Hamburg. Clara Schumann was in the audience, along with his family and childhood teacher, Marxsen. Joachim came to lead the orchestra under the composer’s baton. The result was the biggest ovation Hamburg had ever seen, and to Brahms’ immense embarrassment, he was given a laurel wreath and showered with roses at the end of the performance.

Have a listen of the opening bars of the first movement, and it’s not hard to understand the work’s easily gained popularity - instead of the usual ‘seriousness’ and ‘academic’ quality one often attributes to Brahms, this symphony starts with a 30°C sunshine in the Austrian Alps.  One melody after another, the lyrical first movement is a complete contrast to the dark, C minor First Symphony. Just look how many times Bruno Walter instructs the orchestra to “sing” in the first 10 minutes of this famous rehearsal video. 

The second movement makes one question, with those big ‘what-if’ sighs of historical weight, why Brahms never attempted a cello concerto. It reminds us of his Second Piano Concerto and Piano Quartet No. 3, where cello features prominently in the slow movement. Now the mood has shifted from the sunlight of the first movement to a more shadowy Black Forest. Once again, Brahms has taken out bar lines and instead lets the musical phrases dictate where the pulse is (try to beat with the music).

The dance-like third movement was encored at the work’s premiere - perhaps not surprisingly, as the light-hearted waltz rhythm with a vanishing third beat and the humorous middle section would suit a Viennese audience in the late 19th century.

After this short intermezzo, we hear this mysterious motion on the strings that could really bring forth a thousand possibilities. What eventually emerges is an unabashed celebration of orchestral sound in a predictably triumphant way. Here one sees the marking Beethoven and Schumann left on Brahms. It’s almost like a Marvel movie: you see the end at the very beginning, but you still want to watch it, for what’s important is not the ending itself, but how we arrive there.

But it’s not just nice and pastoral and all that. Indeed, it's difficult to talk about Brahms without sounding like a scary professor. Aware of that risk, we are going to just say one thing: what’s really extraordinary, and is unquestionably a Brahms trademark, is how he develops and interweaves all four movements with a trivial three-note motif. And what’s that motif? The very beginning three notes on the cellos in the first bar of the symphony, which you have surely ignored on first hearing… Now go back, have another listen, and see how many places you are able to identify thematic materials around those three notes! (Hint: rhythmic change and inversion are two usual suspects.)