SS No. 67 | Brahms: Symphony No. 2 in D Major

by Glenn on September 23, 2019

Johannes Brahms (1833–1897)

Symphony No. 2 in D major, Opus 73
I. Allegro non troppo
II. Adagio non troppo
III. Allegretto grazioso (quasi andantino)—Presto ma non assai—Tempot I—Presto ma non assai—Tempo I
IV. Allegro con spirito

It took Brahms forever to write his first symphony. The weight of those nine Beethoven symphonies was just too heavy. But once he got the first out there, it was just a year later that he finished his second. Brahms’ Second Symphony was composed in the summer of 1887 and the first performance was on December 30 of that year by the Vienna Philharmonic led by Hans Richter.

Michael Steinberg makes a kind of analogy from Beethoven’s 5th and 6th symphonies to Brahms’ 1st and 2nd. The first in each pair are “heroic” while this symphony (and Beethoven’s 6th, to complete the analogy) is “all relaxation and expansiveness.”

The third movement is my favorite. I love the spectrum of feeling in the third movement. From a plain melody simply accompanied to a highly-syncopated and raucous exclamation.

There’s a moment in the last movement that reminds me of the opening of Mahler’s First Symphony. But then I hear some Bruckner in here, too.

There’s a great paragraph in Steinberg’s notes:

“Reviewing a Brahms concert by the Philadelphia Orchestra, Virgil Thomson wrote that he had heard a lady say on her way out of Carnegie Hall, ‘Brahms is so dependable.’ We do rather think of him that way, not least because his music is so familiar, particularly the four symphonies. When it was new, though, his music was thought abstruse and excessively intellectual—in a word, ‘difficult.’ Listening to the slow movement of the Second Symphony … we can perhaps recapture what made Brahms a difficult composer. Or, rather, what makes him a difficult composer, because some of his music is so tightly packed and densely argued that it still cuts the inattentive no slack.”

I’m certain I missed more than I got from this movement and this symphony as a whole. I’m grateful for this exercise in going through Steinberg’s The Symphony: A Listener’s Guide and happy to return to it after a long break while I was paying attention to other things.

I’ve neglected the music of Brahms—which is to say that if I saw that an orchestra was performing one of his symphonies, it was a pass for me. There’s a coolness to this music so that it doesn’t quite get under my skin the way Elgar’s First or most Mahler does. To venture a hypothesis: In the late 1800’s there was this tension between absolute and programmatic music. Absolute music had no extra-musical associations. Programmatic music had connections outside itself. For example, Beethoven’s 6th “Pastoral” Symphony which includes a musical thunder storm. I like those connections. Brahms was on the side of the absolutists. The music is what it is and don’t try to read much into it. That said, I note that Brahms did throw in a couple of brief moments of gypsy music in the last movement in this symphony, so maybe it’s not as cut and dried as I might think. But the point is that Brahms has a lot of sound, but it doesn’t speak to me. That may be simply an indication of my own immaturity around classical music. I won’t mind hearing this symphony again, but there’s no compulsion to do so. I don’t have that emotional connection with this music for some reason.

That’s a mystery to me. Not so much why I’m moved by some symphonies and not by others, but how different people have such different experiences with each of them. I do remember Steinberg writing that he approached his job as “counsel for the defense,” trying to make the case for each symphony regardless, one assumes, of what he thought of each.

While some might think of classical music as one all-encompassing genre, the more you understand it, the more you see and hear increasing variety and nuance.