When it came to writing his First Symphony, Johannes Brahms felt the anxiety of influence.
The nine symphonies of Beethoven were so transformative that Brahms was haunted by the “footsteps of a giant” marching behind him. The situation was made worse by Robert Schumann’s enthusiastic public prediction that the young Brahms was destined to become “the heir to Beethoven.” He would carry forward the mantle of “absolute” music, as opposed to the programmatic tone poems of Liszt, and operas of Wagner.
It took 21 years for Brahms to complete his First Symphony, and he was 43 years old when it was premiered in 1876. In the First Symphony’s weighty opening moments, persistent timpani beats tread as ghostly footsteps, while the final movement pays thematic homage to the “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s Ninth.
With the First Symphony complete, the weight seems to have been lifted from Brahms’ shoulders. Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 73 was composed in just four months during the summer of 1877, while Brahms enjoyed the idyllic Austrian setting of Pörtschach am Wörthersee. The monumental First Symphony opens the door to nature in its final movement with its iconic alphorn solo. With a sense of liberation (Reinhold Brinkmann), the Second Symphony inhabits this shimmering, pastoral world. Its radiant sunshine is tempered by underlying shadows of melancholy.
A four note motif in the low strings launches the first movement (Allegro non troppo) gently into motion. This motif (a falling half step, followed by a falling fourth) is the seed out of which the entire movement develops. It initiates a serene musical conversation in which the instruments gradually awaken. Soon, sunshine gives way to shadows with the quiet rumble of timpani and a solemn trombone chorale.
In a letter to Brahms, the conductor, Vincenz Lachner, wrote,
Why do you throw into the idyllically serene atmosphere with which the first movement begins the rumbling kettledrum, the gloomy lugubrious tones of the trombones and tuba? […] Must grace be reconciled with strength through something unnerving?…In all, I would prefer the trombones and tuba to be excluded from this movement.
The composer responded,
I very much wanted to manage in that first movement without using trombones, and tried to. […] But their first entrance, that’s mine, and I can’t get along without it and thus the trombones. Were I to defend the passage, I would have to be long-winded…I would have to confess that I am, by the by, a severely melancholic person, that black wings are constantly flapping above us, and that in my output—perhaps not entirely by chance—that symphony is followed by a little essay about the great ‘Why.’ If you don’t know this (motet) I will send it to you. It casts the necessary shadow on the serene symphony and perhaps accounts for those timpani and trombones.
(The enigmatic “why” refers to Brahms’ Op. 74, No. 1, an a cappella motet of biblical verses (Job 3:20–23) in which Job cries out to God in anguish after the devil has tested his faith by killing his children and stripping him of his wealth).
Rhythmically, the first movement’s exposition feels flowing and dreamy, with long, irregular phrases, a lilting 3/4 meter, and the use of hemiola. In the Symphony’s opening bars, the ghost of Beethoven still lingers with the imprint of the principal theme from the first movement of the “Eroica.” The exposition closes with a tender allusion to Brahms’ famous Lullaby, Op. 49, No. 4 in the violas and celli. The development section is stormy and exhilarating, with building tension and the relentless tossing and turning of motifs. The movement’s coda fades into autumnal sunshine.
The second movement (Adagio non troppo) is Brahms’ only symphonic adagio. It begins with a majestic, expansive theme in the celli, which moves from anxiety to glorious reassurance. With a sense of continuous organic development and variation, the movement unfolds as a whirlwind of tempestuous energy and quiet lament, before reaching ultimate repose in the final cadence.
The brief third movement (Allegretto grazioso-quasi andantino) is part minuet, part scherzo. The pastoral voice of the oboe introduces a lilting melody amid gentle pizzicati. In the contrasting Presto section, vigorous dotted rhythms in the strings recall similar figures in the first movement. Contrasting rhythms and competing grooves abound.
The final movement (Allegro con spirito) begins as a mysterious sotto voce, and then explodes as a yelp of joy. The sudden forte lands as a boisterous musical joke. Malcolm MacDonald calls this opening “the blazing sunrise of the most athletic and ebulliently festive movement Brahms ever wrote.” Amid the jubilation are echoes of the “Hallelujah” Chorus from Handel’s Messiah. The broad second theme (largamente) is a majestic hymn of gratitude. Only in the development section do ghosty shadows fall once again. The coda section is punctuated by a celebratory pyramid of falling scales which moves through the three trombones, beginning with the bass and tuba, and concluding with the alto voice. The trombones, with their previous shadowy, supernatural evocations of “black wings,” have the final word, sounding a triumphant D major triad in the Symphony’s final cadence.
Here is Christoph von Dohnányi’s 1987 recording with the Cleveland Orchestra:
Five Great Recordings
- Brahms: Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 73, Christoph von Dohnányi, The Cleveland Orchestra Amazon
- Riccardo Chailly and the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester
- Eugen Jochum and the Berlin Philharmonic
- Bernard Haitink and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
- Wilhelm Furtwängler and the Berlin Philharmonic
Featured Image: “Inn Valley Landscape” (1910), Lovis Corinth