Programme notes

Symphony No 2 in D Major, Op 73, Johannes Brahms (1833—1897)

1 Allegro non troppo;  2 Adagio non troppo;  3 Allegretto grazioso (quasi andantino); 4 Allegro con spirito

Brahms composed this symphony in the summer of 1877, taking considerably less time than the fifteen years required for his first symphony. The mostly genial and pastoral mood might invite comparison with Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony; even so, Brahms, perhaps mischievously, wrote to his publisher a couple of months later that the symphony 'is so melancholy that you will not be able to bear it. I have never written anything so sad, and the score must come out in mourning.' There is a darker mood in th second movement, but the joyous finale concludes in celebratory bell-ringing. The premiere was given in Vienna at the end of the year by the Vienna Philharmonic under the direction of Hans Richter.

Brahms preserves many traditional features in this work: the structural principles of the classical symphony (two lively outer movements framing the slow movement and a short scherzo); the orchestration with only a standard orchestra for the time; and an overall duration of about 40 minutes. Yet there are some remarkably adventurous explorations in harmony, striking use of the trombones and complete independence of all the wind parts, exquisite string textures, and in every movement some rhythmic games, playfully shifting the listener’s expectations. 

The first movement develops from the three-equal-note figure heard on cellos and basses at the start. A second theme of one long and two short notes using a three-note scale is introduced, and from these two rhythmically contrasted ideas Brahms weaves the whole movement. The level of invention—of melody, rhythm and harmony—is intense and extraordinary. 

Further rhythmic complexity is revealed in the brooding second movement, where again we are struck by the interplay and division into units of the numbers 2 and 3 (which of course add up to 5!—numbers do mean a lot in Brahms). Melodic variation and phrase extension are integral as much to this movement’s structure as to the development. The movement ends with a poignant coda. 

The scherzo is somewhat enigmatic but remarkably balanced: the opening melody is possibly derived from the old sarabande pattern with hints of classical minuet, whereas the contrasting section is brisk and pell-mell in vitality. Following Beethoven’s structural experiments in the scherzo of his 5th, 7th and 9th symphonies, the two ideas alternate without ever reaching full resolution until the simply restrained codetta.

Cross-rhythms and syncopations also appear in the lively finale, although the opening is dynamically gentle, the better to startle the listener with the first full orchestra entry. Upbeat excitement is the over-riding mood, but the second subject is marked largamente, offering some reflective moments, most tellingly so in the preparation for the recapitulation which seems to predict the orchestral sonorities of Bruckner and Mahler. Despite the 4-note figures running around so often in this fascinating texture, hints of the first movement’s three-note figures provide a sense of completion of the creative circle.

Colin Touchin

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