performed by the Chicago symphony orchestra under Sir Georg Solti
Watch both of these above. In the second video, Maestro Bernstein begins talking about the second symphony just before the three minute mark.
This is such a pleasant symphony, and I took to it much faster than his first. I regret having forced myself to write about his first in such haste, when I really didn’t have it all under my belt like I’d wanted to, and at this point, I wouldn’t go ahead with writing about a symphony I was still that unfamiliar with. I’ll probably give it another go at another time, but to continue our very Germanic series, we have another second symphony, this one from the same guy who wrote “Beethoven’s tenth.”
Relative to the first, this one was swiftly written and completed. It’s fantastically rustic and enjoyable. Watch the video above of Maestro Bernstein explaining the basic idea of the second symphony and how it is built from the simplest of musical “bricks.” If you get nothing else out of this piece, enjoy the blossoming of four very closely related movements from a simple but very beautiful musical kernel. I enjoyed the symphony anyway, but when you see what Brahms did here, with its almost absurd simplicity and beauty, it’s inspiring. I began to enjoy and appreciate it even more.
It’s also interesting, if you want to draw only tenuously related parallels, that both Beethoven’s and Brahms’ pastoral symphonies (the former more officially than the latter) were written quite quickly after previous, more serious works. It’s a thought. It, like Beethoven’s second last week, was also composed during a vacation of some kind, at least a visit, to Pörtschach am Wörthersee, a town in Carinthia, in the south of Austria, noted for its mountains and lakes. This would seem naturally to contribute to its cheery, peaceful nature.
His comment, then, to his publisher about the piece being “so melancholy that you will not be able to bear it,” and “I have never written anything so sad, and the score must come out in morning” are clearly in jest.
The premiere was given in Vienna on December 30, 1877 by the Vienna Philharmonic under Hans Richter. Almost comically, Walter Frisch notes that “in one of those little ironies of music history, [the premiere] had to be postponed [because] the players were so preoccupied with learning Das Rheingold by Richard Wagner.” C’est la vie.
I feel in this symphony, more so than the first, that Brahms perhaps got out of his system much of his adoration for and need to live up to Beethoven. If I dare to sound a bit critical of a piece I just admitted I don’t know as well as I should, it seems almost contrived, or maybe overworked. While it’s undoubtedly an accomplishment of music, it was given the name Beethoven’s tenth for a reason. Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde had been released a decade before Brahms’ first, which makes his adherence to traditional forms and expectations that much more… Radical, in a backwards kind of surprisingly traditional way. I feel like in that first symphony, he MAY have had a chip on his shoulder or a bit of a complex about it, but this piece in contrast feels natural, organic, and unpretentious. It sounds to me like he had a lot more fun and inspiration writing this one than he did the first.
It’s shorter and more succinct, but it also has a feeling of tight unity, of beauty, and of a deceptive simplicity that keeps me coming back.
After coming off a serious Mahler phase that lasted a few months, turning around and hearing this feels, at first glance, boring, to be honest. It doesn’t have the thunder that even the composer’s first had. None of the things (well almost) I love about Mahler… Are as obvious here. This piece is cozy and pleasant and does not have the contrasts or sacred vs. profane kind of narrative present in so many of Mahler’s works that I find so fascinating. If Mahler had a pastoral, it would be his first. This piece doesn’t have the extremes or breadth of any Mahler symphony (what others do?), and that’s not a criticism. It’s just that it took some time to come off the Mahler high and see this piece for what it is.
And what is it? It is warm and cozy and feels like the whole thing was effortlessly plucked from the trees of the forest while you crunched on fallen leaves of all colors. Brahms himself says (quoted here) that “…the melodies flow so freely that one must be careful not to trample on them.” I feel perhaps not as much freely as perhaps delicately or ubiquitously.
The opening is sublime, again not in the way that the end of Mahler’s second is sublime, but in quite the opposite way. It’s not a thundering, dramatic roaring statement, it’s not an exciting, gripping edge-of-your-seat thrill ride or an ear-shattering blast. In fact, it feels like a contented, relaxed deep breath that tells you to lay back and look up at the stars (or the clouds) and just…. kind of float. It sets the mood for the entire piece. This all brings to mind words like pastoral and earthy and autumnal, scenes of leaves and changing colors and green grass, but it feels much more naturally so than even Beethoven’s pastoral or Schumann’s Rhenish, at least to me at this moment having just listened to Thielemann’s live performance with Staatskapelle Dresden (at the time of writing, in the mountains and enjoying the fresh air myself).
First picture of mine on the blog! In the mountains in Taiwan on site during filming of a new movie (work-related)
I digress. The first movement is a significant 20-plus-minute chunk, apparently the longest movement of any of Brahms’ symphonies, but it doesn’t feel that way. After the ‘take a deep breath’ opening, there is what feels like an intro, but this theme in the low strings kind of winds its way into the theme that blossoms in the first violins after a few quick key changes. D major is reestablished, and you can hear the full expression of the little “building blocks” in (almost?) all their glory. The second theme comes in on cellos, and isn’t in A major, as would be expected, but F# minor, the relative minor of the dominant key of D major. That all sounds super technical, but it’s just a small detail telling you the second theme opens with just the slightest tinge of melancholy, but eventually DOES finish in the ‘expected’ key of A major. These two themes are the main points to take away from the first movement.
Even for first-time listeners to any form or type of classical music, you should notice something here. The second subject should be familiar to everyone… Everyone! You may think Brahms has plagiarized this lullaby tune, but no. He composed that too. It came from his Wiegenlied: Guten Abend, gute Nacht, op. 49, no. 4., and it fits quite well. The familiarity of the lullaby certainly works with the “cozy up and relax” atmosphere of the symphony on the whole, but the tune may not have been as famous then as it is now. I don’t know.
I cannot afford to describe in detail the dizzying brilliance of what feels like such a delightfully straightforward movement (or entire piece). Brahms, in simple ways, uses such straightforward and small variations or transpositions or inversions of ideas to at once both transform and unify the little sparks of ideas in this movement (or again, the entire piece). For a full, seriously in-depth discussion far beyond anything I could offer, check out this amazing analysis.
The first two subjects in the first movement have stuck with me, they get into my head and I can’t get them out. But we’ll talk about that later.
The second movement is the most dramatic of all the movements. It has been described here as “restless, enigmatic.” Schoenberg called it “musical prose.” It’s certainly the most serious in nature, but it’s not tumultuous or angry or tragic or anything like that. At most, in keeping with the pastoral idea, it’s an afternoon thunderstorm: the skies darken for a bit and all the animals scurry to hide, shutters close, and it rains and thunders for a while, but no one fears for their lives. It’s truly beautiful, and the textures are different the sextuplet rhythms and triplet figured and harmonies stand this piece in strong contrast with the first movement. It’s certainly more complex.
The third movement is the shortest in all of Brahms’ four symphonies, and in contrast with the preceding movement is beautiful simplicity. It’s delightfully quaint and homey and folksy. It doesn’t have the intensity and playfulness of the scherzo from Beethoven’s second last week, or the towering scope of a Bruckner scherzo. In fact, it’s almost more like a minuet (?), and there are two distinctly different trios, but they’re both strongly related to the opening theme, so it plays out also like a very compact theme-and-variations movement, with time signature changes and everything. It’s a dainty, polite, wonderful little few minutes in just the right measure and at the right place. I didn’t want to talk about Brahms’ use of rhythm until after my ‘analysis,’ but it’s so apparent here. At his tempo, with these phrasings and his use of a grace note in the oboe line even from the beginning, the rhythm of the piece feels… not obviously in 3/4? At least to me, and then the two trios (or variations on this theme) use such inventive little twists that the transitions feel so natural. It’s playful and exciting.
The fourth begins almost white but busy, but starts to roar before too long. It is certainly allegro con spirito. It is a dance, almost a celebration. It feels like a journey through the woods has landed us at our final destination, a sunny, joyous occasion with friends and family and happy children and really good food. Or something. It’s also in sonata form. While it begins quietly…ish… with pizzicato strings and everything, it explodes into full-orchestra glory. This makes up the first subject, but violins enter with a new subject in A major, and then the development. That A major theme later reappears in the tonic (D major), and the movement closes with busy chords and notes, ending triumphantly.
This movement, of all the four, is the most…. outwardly and unapologetically playful, to me. The first is warm and cozy, the second more dramatic, the third definitely playful and fun, but this movement, with its dynamic changes, rhythms and everything is the most lively and “violently happy” (where have I heard that phrase before?) The word triumphant comes to mind, but not in any kind of highbrow pompous way. It’s spectacular. One thing that definitely jumped out at me is a falling-fourth passage (I believe the one marked tranquillo, but not sure) that is identical, not similar, but like identical to the opening of Mahler’s first, also in D major. Was this intentional on Mahler’s part? Dunno, but it sounded very obvious to me.
As for recordings, it’s hard to say… I love Solti’s… perhaps just because it’s what I got familiar with. I listened to Sanderling, Thielemann, Karajan, Mengelberg, and more. I’m a sucker for great audio quality, though, and there’s nothing wrong in my mind with Chicago’s reading or the interpretation, so that’s the one that stuck. I don’t care for their Mahler, but I like what they’ve done here.
All in all, I have come to enjoy this symphony far more than I expected I would.
There are a few things this symphony brings to mind. Just as the third movement of Mahler’s first was seared into my brain and practically haunted me for the first few days after I heard it, this entire piece has done the same with its beauty. I have a number of pieces in my rotation these days for our German series we are working on, and every once in a while I’ll find a tune playing through in my head and I can’t place it. I keep playing out the line for a few more bars, and humming along, and lately, 95% of the time, it’s a beautiful line from one of the movements of this symphony. It just all feels right.
Firstly, I’ve been on a podcast kick (I’ve actually been actively avoiding podcasts because I know it is a bottomless pit into which I will fall and never crawl out), a kick that started with Serial, led to Criminal, Thinking Sideways and most frighteningly, Sword & Scale. After unsolved mysteries and serial murderers and missing persons, Brahms’ second is a delightfully bright and comforting piece to listen to.
Firstly (I digressed above), I was fascinated to see in the score how Brahms uses and manipulates rhythm and meter. Phrases that seem to be a strong beat actually come at the end of a bar, almost hiding or blurring the meter of the piece, but it doesn’t feel lost. It has a heartbeat, a distinct pulse, but in one long unbroken line. I didn’t realize this until I looked at the score. Perhaps I just have an awful ear for this kind of thing (but I actually feel rhythm is one of the only strengths I have in music), but I was fascinated to see how phrases were interwoven and passed seamlessly around and kind of never ended in the first movement (at least in places), while the second movement is punctuated with stronger, more distinct rhythms, pauses, and accents. The third is distinctly rhythmic and inventive, as discussed above, and the fourth is the pinnacle of playfulness and celebration for this symphony, a suitable conclusion.
The second thing I got to thinking about was the degree of… ‘movement’ emotionally, that one gets from different music. I can easily be moved to tears by an inspired performance of Mahler’s second or ninth (the end of the former or the opening of the latter). Shostakovich’s fifth is heart wrenching and almost unbearably sorrowful, and that is incredibly moving. I personally am more likely to be moved to tears by sorrow than beauty. Is everyone that way? Why? This piece is one that stands out to me as being just as shockingly stunningly beautiful as Shostakovich’s fifth is mournful. Does that make sense? Even so, it doesn’t move me to tears. Are different people just moved differently by different things? I suppose so, but what does that say about each of us?
I find Mahler’s or Shostakovich’s works above to be so stunningly beautiful not solely because of their complexity, but it often plays a part. The closing (the last ten minutes or so) of Mahler’s second, with the organ and choir and the full symphony all singing gloriously is almost overwhelmingly kind of crushingly beautiful, while the opening of his ninth ‘gets me’ in somehow the opposite way. Brahms here shows such ingenuity with such simple ideas, so simple that you may not even realize it without reading the score. There’s a certain perfect balance between warm tenderness and lively excitement that is no less than captivating. It made me appreciate this piece far more. I am very glad to have met you, Symphony no. 2.