Brahms: Symphony no 2

In contrast to the 21 years it took for his first symphony, the second of Brahms’ four symphonies was composed over the summer of 1877, during a visit to the southernmost Austrian province of Carinthia. It was first performed by the Vienna Philharmonic in Vienna, in December of that same year.

The symphony follows the structural principles of the classical symphony with the lively outer two movements (both in sonata form) framing the slow second movement and a scherzo. The mood is generally cheery and pastoral, although Brahms wrote to his publisher 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”! We’ll never be sure if Brahms, (a renowned practical joker) was being truly serious in saying this but the symphony was immediately warmly received by audiences and has been a favourite ever since.

Brahms and Dvorak met for the first time in 1877, having been on the jury which had awarded the annual Vienna State Prize to Dvorak in the three years 1875-77, and there are echoes of Dvorak’s musical influences in this symphony.

1 – allegro non troppo (moderately fast)

The cellos and double basses introduce the principal theme which is continued by the horns and developed first by the wind and then by the full orchestra. Much of this first movement is based on the tune commonly known as “Brahms’ Lullaby”, originally composed for his “Wiegenlied” (“Cradle Song”). Brahms plays around with this tune rhythmically and harmonically throughout this movement.

2 – adagio non troppo (“rather slowly”)

This movement is characterised by a term coined by Arnold Schonberg – the “developing variation”- where the musical concepts of development and variation are united in that variations are created by developing the original material. The cellos introduce a brooding theme against a counter-melody from the bassoons. A second theme emerges and is briefly developed before the highly modified recapitulation. The main theme is then reinstated in the coda-like finish to this movement.

3 – allegretto grazioso (quasi andantino) (“gracefully fairly fast (around walking pace)”)

Pizzicato cellos accompany a beautiful oboe melody before an abrupt switch to a contrasting presto section in 2/4 time which begins in the strings. A little later the opening idyll returns before being interrupted again by the second theme, this time in 3/4 time. The movement closes with the final appearance of the opening theme.

4 – allegro con spirito (“fast with spirit”)

The strings start with a quiet but very busy section. This is violently disturbed by the whole orchestra playing forte and, when this dies away, the violins introduce the second theme. The wind develops this theme to a climax which precedes a tranquil section which itself musters energy for the recapitulation – the restatement of the opening theme and the orchestral forte. The movement ends with the second theme, complete with descending chords and mazy runs but this is overshadowed by the brass section, concluding the symphony in a triumphant mood.

Here is a brief guide to some of the terms used above…

Coda – literally “tail”- the end section of a piece of music

Forte – loud, strong

Presto – very fast

Recapitulation – a restatement of the theme(s) of the exposition (see below), sometimes with little change and sometimes with some development. In popular music, we might call this the “reprise”.

Scherzo – literally “joke” but generally meaning a light and humorous piece

Sonata (form) – a classical musical structure comprising exposition (statement of the theme(s)); development where the theme is/themes are elaborated and contrasted; and recapitulation (see above)

Robyn Morgan, Violin 2