Length: c. 40 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: August 17, 1923, with Emil Oberhoffer conducting
After waiting many years to complete his First Symphony, Brahms produced a second one almost overnight. This tendency to compose pairs of works which complement one another is a parallel with Beethoven, whose “Pastoral” Symphony followed his Fifth in similar fashion. This 1877 score shares other qualities with Beethoven’s Sixth: it has a largely bucolic, even rustic character, and it includes a folksy, dancing third movement. The composer wrote of the surroundings in which the Second Symphony was created (the seaside village of Pörtschach) that “…the melodies flow so freely that one must be careful not to trample on them.”
Although there is no separate tempo designation, the opening movement begins with an introductory section whose thematic material will return frequently; nearly 50 bars later, the radiant main theme (marked to be played sweetly or gently – dolce) is introduced in the first violins, followed by a second subject (marked cantando – singing) in the cellos. As Hermann Kretzschmar observed in an analysis published during the composer’s lifetime, this movement “…resembles an agreeable landscape into which the setting sun casts its sublime and somber lights. It contains a far greater number of independent musical ideas than this scheme requires….” The contrast between drama and reverie is sustained eloquently during what turns out to be the longest movement in any of the Brahms symphonies; there are moments of surprising darkness, when the generally lighter scoring gives way to richly harmonized passages for trombones and tuba, creating “spectral effects,” as Karl Geiringer describes them. A haunting coda features a solo horn in what Kretzschmar calls “…among the most beautiful parts of the symphony…” and the movement ends quietly.
It could be the second movement that prompted Brahms to write to his publisher that the score should be published on pages with black borders. This music is complex and serious, with short thematic elements following closely upon one another; this “musical prose” (Schoenberg’s term) gives the movement a restless, enigmatic quality. There is an overall formal logic in the structure, but the listener is denied the easy repetition of simple, songlike tunes.
By contrast, simplicity is the hallmark of the third movement (or so it would seem). A simple tune in the oboe alternates with more emphatic sections in which strings and winds dance in a fashion reminiscent of the third movement of Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony. As elsewhere in this work, of course, Brahms works his materials into complex and compelling structures that add fascinating layers to the melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic textures of his music.
Although the last movement’s opening is marked sotto voce, it quickly explodes into a rousing and exuberant dance. Kretzschmar sees a connection with the wit and exuberance of Haydn; the startling discovery here is that the principal theme of the finale is based on material from the opening movement. Brahms rounds the work off with a rollicking coda that erupts in a glorious burst of sustained sunlight from the trombones.
— Dennis Bade is Associate Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.