Johannes Brahms – Symphony No. 2, in D major, Opus 73
I. Allegro non troppo
II. Adagio non troppo
III. Allegretto grazioso (quasi andantino)
IV. Allegro con spirito
The lyrical beauty of Brahms’s Second symphony makes it perhaps the most popular of the four works he composed in this form. The contrast between this symphony and the heroic First is complete, and it is strikingly analogous to the differences between Beethoven’s Fifth and Sixth symphonies. Brahms’s First and Beethoven’s Fifth are both in the same key and in a heroic vein. Both composers took considerable time with these works, although Brahms, who was forty years old before his first symphony saw the light, was by far the more deliberate. Then, after the two C minor symphonies of storm and stress, each man produced, in a short time, a work which offered ingratiating contrast to previous epic utterances. Each of these works, furthermore, implies a “return to nature.” Beethoven’s symphony in F is avowedly so.
1 The title “Pastoral,” as well as the music, proves it. Brahms’s D major symphony has no title; it is less impressionistic, closer knit and stronger in its fabric than the corresponding work of Beethoven; but it, too, is surely of nature, and its vernal loveliness is like unto that of the Spring.
The opening, with the four notes of the ‘cellos and basses and the reply of the dusky horn, is the emotional as well as the musical key of the composition. The melodies that stream and intermingle in the orchestra, the lusty power of certain contrasting pass-ages, and the coda, in which the magical horn is heard again, haunting forever the memoryall this is Spring herself, her dreaming eyes, her wayward glance. The second movement, grave and poetic, is Brahms in a brown study. For his contemporaries the movement was “a hard nut to crack.” For us it is not so formidable. We know Brahms better, and admire him the more for his complete originality and fearlessness in self-expression. Here he thinks aloud. In his own way, and sometimes in long sentences, he formulates his thought, and the movement has the rich chromaticism, depth of shadow and significance of detail that characterize a Rembrandt portrait. It is also the admirable foil to the virility and elan of other movements. The third movement, with its delicious modulations and capricious changes of rhythms, is all built on the pastoral melody that the oboe sings over the strings pizzicato. The finale begins with a kind of theme that is a hallmark of Brahms’s style
motive played in unison by many instruments, which creeps mysteriously through the low registers of the orchestra before its brilliant proclamation by the full band. There are also rhythmical effects for which this composer has a fondnessalternating two and three rhythms, or groups of notes in these two rhythms, opposed to each other, and sudden explosive accents remindful of Beethoven. Later the violins take up a new song, having for its bass a motive from the opening theme of the movement, which later, flung out by the trumpets, brings the glorious conclusion. When Brahms had finished this symphony he wrote ‘his friend, Dr. Billroth, saying, “I don’t know whether I have a pretty symphony. I must inquire of learned persons!”