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Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 73

About the Work

Johannes Brahms
Quick Look Composer: Johannes Brahms
© Richard Freed
Brahms began work on his Second Symphony in the summer of 1877 and completed the score in time for Hans Richter to introduce the work with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra on December 30 of that year. Hans Kindler conducted the National Symphony Orchestra's first performance of this work, on March 1, 1934; the most recent ones, on November 29-30 and December 1, were conducted by Stéphane Denève.

The orchestra specified in the score comprises flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons in pairs; 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, and strings. Duration, 40 minutes.

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After working off-and-on for some twenty years to produce what eventually became his First Symphony in 1876, Brahms was so heartened by the huge success of that work that he was able to compose his Second swiftly and almost effortlessly in the following year. Where the First had been laboriously hewn from granite, the Second seemed to bloom as spontaneously as a spring blossom in a forest glade. Its genial, outgoing character, among other factors, sets it apart from Brahms's three other symphonies; this is the one understandably regarded as his "pastoral" symphony, and it is surely the most directly endearing of the four.

Brahms tried to conceal this geniality from the Viennese public up to the time of the work's premiere, even remarking that he ought to wear a crape armband "in deference to the solemn and mournful nature of my latest child." While some musical analysts have taken him at his world and have gone to great lengths to show the Second as a "tragic" symphony (the conductor Artur Rodzinski was one who felt "great tragedy" in this music), the very opening of the work assures us that he was only having one of his little jokes, for it establishes at once an ingratiatingly pastoral mood. The radiant second theme is one of Brahms's characteristic outpourings of warm contentment, reminiscent of his beloved "Cradle Song" and the Waltz in A-flat for piano. The first theme is subjected to fugal treatment in the development; new motifs spun off by variations in the rhythm are hailed and dismissed by clipped comments from the brass, and after its vigorous course has been run the movement ends even more tenderly than it began.

The serious mood of the second movement has been cited in support of the "tragic" interpretation of the Symphony, but "solemn" and "meditative"—terms that do characterize this music—are hardly synonyms for "tragic." There is a certain melancholy vein here, which deepens with the appearance of the hymnlike second theme, but it is only in the second half of the movement that the basic tranquility is disturbed briefly by a passing storm—and storms, by long established tradition, are hardly out of place in "pastoral" works.

This basic element is emphasized on a simpler level in the third movement, a bucolic intermezzo of almost naïve charm and intimacy. The scoring is lighter here than in the rest of the work, and the unexpectedly animated middle section serves to heighten the ingratiating effect of the easygoing Allegretto that enwraps it. At the work's premiere, the delighted Viennese audience demanded and got a repetition of this movement.

Following the energetic but consciously restrained opening of the final movement, its first theme is restated in an exultant orchestral outburst and then, the way cleared by the good-naturedly crackling and snarling winds, the broad second theme makes its entrance in lambent sunset colors. The music builds confidently to the invigorating coda in which the second theme is transformed into a blazing fanfare, ending the symphony on a note of sheer exhilaration virtually unparalleled among Brahms's major works. The conclusions of his First and Fourth symphonies are monumental, that of the Third touchingly elegiac; that of the Second simply abounds in joy.