Johannes Brahms (1833-1987)

Symphony # 2 in D Major, Op. 73

Instrumentation: 2 Flutes, 2 Oboes, 2 Clarinets, 2 Bassoons, 4 French Horns, 2 Trumpets, 3 Trombones, Tuba, Timpani and Strings

“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.” –Brahms, in a letter to his publisher about the second symphony, November 22, 1877

1877: One Hundred and One Years of Freedom for America.

Perhaps Just As Much Freedom for Brahms….

Perhaps no where else in the history of music is there more of a contrast in the compositional process than in the first two symphonies of Johannes Brahms. His first symphony in c minor required a journey of 15 + years for completion. Naturally, he was occupied with other compositions but nonetheless needed a wide span of time for his symphonic prowess to mature. When his first symphony saw the light of day, America was celebrating a century of freedom. For Brahms, it was his independence from uncertainty of his own abilities as a symphonic composer-and perhaps just as importantly, his declaration to be free of the personal struggles which initially inspired the work.

1877 saw a new independence for Brahms: his freedom to develop symphonic creations with a speed and certainty which would have been unimaginable for him just a few years prior. Now, in the summer of 1877, in the beauties and soft vastness of nature which Brahms so loved, he created a second symphonic masterpiece within a mere three months, and premiered it by the end of the year. What has been hailed by music history as Brahms’ “Pastoral” is all the more remarkable if we consider how this work was perceived in its creator’s heart. If we dwell upon the above quote by Brahms, we may wonder how it is that this work, filled with radiance and an almost carefree, relaxed and sunny disposition (albeit featuring moments of outbursts and unrest) could ever have been thought of by Brahms as one of his saddest works.

Remember the Alamo-and Agathe von Siebold

If we were to search for a possible theory for why Brahms may have equated his love for nature with sadness, we may be compelled to recall his very joyful-and heartbreakingly profound-relationship with Agathe von Siebold (1835-?). She was by all accounts kind, considerate, blessed with flowing dark hair and a beautiful singing voice which the famous violinist and friend of Brahms, Joseph Joachim (1831-1907) called “an Amati violin voice.”

The daughter of a university professor, she and Brahms experienced a wondrous love affair in the summer of 1858. Their mutual love of nature resulted in spending entire days basking in the beauties of forests, brooks and open skies.

Owing to differences in how each perceived commitment and financial stability, Agathe declared many years later: “Whether by our own hands or by the hands of Providence, it was right for us to part.”

Brahms, as deeply wounded as Agathe, gave immortal voice to her in his String Sextet # 2, as the ensemble passionately cries out her name in the notes A-G-A-B Natural (H in German), E. (Sidebar: This theme appears in the first movement as the closing theme in both the exposition and recapitulation).

Sorry, Mr. Brahms. We Cannot Perform Your Symphony As Scheduled. The Orchestra is Still Learning How to Play Wagner

Originally, the second symphony was scheduled for performance on December 9, 1877 with the Vienna Philharmonic under the direction of Hans Richter (1843-1916). Richter, a great admirer of Wagner, also helped to build a bridge between the bitter rivalries of the followers of Wagner and Brahms.

Perhaps it is one of the greatest ironies in music that the premier of Brahms’ second symphony had to be postponed to December 30, as the orchestra was still learning Wagner’s Das Rheingold.

An Eternal Day in the Country, Starting with Brahms’ Beloved French Horn

First Movement: Allegro non troppo

The symphony begins in perfect tranquility. The cellos and basses set the stage for the French horns, an instrument beloved by Brahms. Flutes echo peacefully, the violins enter with hesitation, timpani drums seem to foretell the dangers of a storm until the main theme bursts forth in utter radiance.

The transition to the second theme is carefree, but then dramatically changes to the minor tonality as the violas and cellos intone what Brahms must have had in mind when he referred to the sadness of this work.

A triumphant closing theme revels in rhythmic vitality. The relentless tempo underlies echoes of passionate yearning, relieved by a revisit to the second theme, this time in major and ushered in by the woodwinds.

French horns begin the development, starting again with the tranquil, peaceful quality of the first movement. But in a surprising display of counterpoint, the main theme erupts with forceful independent weavings from various sections of the orchestra. Dissonant exclamations from the brass are overthrown by the strings. Powerful crescendos and mysterious diminuendos may remind us of the changing cloudscapes over imposing mountain ranges. A radiant return to the main theme recaptures the warmth of the opening mood.

After another journey into the wistfulness of the second theme and the dramatic vastness of the closing theme, notice the warm, carefree, humorous utterances of the coda before all ends in a peaceful sigh.

Second Movement: Adagio non troppo

The adagio second movement begins with a yearning forcefulness. Notice the noble, yet saddened phrases of the cellos. The violins take up the theme, with just as much gracious nobility. The French horn begins yet another adventure in counterpoint, taken up by the rest of the winds and answered in the basses. This leads to a ravishingly beautiful theme in the strings. Carefree woodwinds answer, leading to a lovely dialogue between the two sections. Suddenly, an outburst erupts of impatient passions, culminating in thunderous anger. With trembling strings and questioning woodwinds, all returns to peacefulness, a lilting dance of tranquil musings. The French horns bring the strings once more to noble utterances. More passionate outbursts lead to uncertain accentuations, like dying thunder, before silence envelopes the final moment.

Third Movement: Allegretto grazioso (quasi andantino)

The pastoral and spacious third movement begins with a wonderful melody for oboe, joined in by the other woodwinds. This contrasts with an energetic, almost bucolic-inspired country dance. Constant changes between these two themes make for one of Brahms’ most well-loved orchestral movements. At the premier, this movement was repeated.

Finale: Allegro con spirito

The symphony concludes with unbridled energy, the spontaneous and glorious outbursts of the main theme perhaps reminding us at times of the glorious finale of Mozart’s “Jupiter” symphony. The strings begin a rapturous, luminous second theme, climaxing to a passionate closing theme which features rhythmic variations as only Brahms can achieve. Hushed and lively counterpoint in the winds, accentuated by pizzicato strings, only adds to the glorious nature of the music. The dramatic development ends with mysterious harmonic colorings as we are swept back to the exuberant main theme. The heavenly second theme now appears even more powerfully, as does the closing theme, as we are heralded toward the conclusion: ultimate triumph, breathtaking ascendance, the human spirit soaring beyond clouds.

…And Back to Agathe? 

While we may never know if Brahms’ relationship with Agathe was the cause of mentioning sadness about a symphony so obviously inspired by nature, we can be certain of this: that the same eyes which were inspired by nature to compose this magnificent orchestral gem, which so loved every aspect of forests, meadows, mountains and sunsets-those same eyes also gazed deeply into the eyes of those he loved, and in so doing, moved his heart to commit to manuscript works of profound musical utterances.