JOHANNES BRAHMS (1833-1897)
SYMPHONY No.2 in D, Op. 73
PREMIERED: Vienna, Austria, 1877
- I Allegro non troppo
- II Adagio non troppo
- III Allegretto grazioso (quasi andantino)
- IV Allegro con spirito
Following the extremely successful premiere of his Second Symphony, Brahms did two things that changed his historical image irrevocably: he finally gave up wanting to be a conductor, and he grew a beard. His running rivalry with Richard Wagner finally hit the buffers of absurdity when Brahms’s new Symphony had to be delayed because the orchestra needed extra time to rehearse Wagner’s Das Rheingold; Brahms was now the unwitting symbol of a conservatism he never actually espoused. Sleek, modern-looking Wagner would forever peer across the ring at Bach-meets-Santa-Claus Brahms for most of the next hundred years, with theorists like Nietzsche and Hanslick wielding the towels (in Nietzsche’s case, for both sides).
This supremely genial symphony is no-one’s idea of an act of war. The first movement is in a clear, calm sonata form with both themes in the “correct” keys after a short but well-intentioned veer into the startling F# major for a few measures before the second theme appears. As if to underscore the music’s good intentions, the famous Wiegenlied (Cradle Song) appears halfway through, and quietly influences the rest of the movement.
The slow movement, in a theoretically-mysterious B major (a genial three dominants away, compared with Beethoven’s heroic four), combines variation technique with sonata form, with both themes elaborating slowly through the movement. Those (there are many) who accuse Brahms of poor orchestration should look closely at the third movement, which achieves most of its (vital) contrast with the rest of the work by thinning out the instrumental texture, not to mention the changes of time signature that point to an entirely different world – the folk music of Eastern Europe, especially Hungary, which held a special (personal?) fascination for Brahms.
After two movements in sonata form, it’s surprising to find that the finale is a third example, but by now we’re starting to get the message. The tranquillo section that leads to the huge Recapitulation is carefully knitted from earlier material, at a place where Beethoven would have simply stomped down a staircase of diminished chords over a growling pedal point. For Beethoven, sonata form was mainly a system of contrasting structural blocks; for Brahms, it was a process, as ideas morphed and twisted into each other – a procedure that led Schoenberg to pronounce Brahms the greatest composer of his century. Ironically, the other composer who maintained that composition was “the art of transition” was … Wagner.
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