Mercury Orchestra


Notes on the composers and the pieces

Johannes Brahms

Johannes Brahms: Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 73

Most of Brahms’s major orchestral works appeared relatively late in his career. The first sign of his next attempt at a symphony was a sketch he gave Clara Schumann in 1862. Nothing apparently came of it, and any further sketches were destroyed.1 Meanwhile, he sought conducting jobs, particularly the music directorship of the Hamburg Philharmonic, going so far as to move to Vienna in 1862 to establish a reputation that would impress Philharmonic management. When he was passed over, he remained in Vienna, composing and concertizing. After resigning from his conducting job at Wien Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in 1875, he worked solely as a composer.

During this period, he wrote a second Serenade, three Piano Quartets, a String Sextet, Horn Trio, and in 1868, the German Requiem, the work that established him as a major composer. After Haydn Variations cemented his popularity in 1873, he produced his Symphony No. 1 in 1876, a work that resurrected the symphonic form for many composers.

Four months later in 1877, Symphony No. 2 emerged as a huge sigh of relief. Brahms wrote it while summering in the Austrian summer resort of Pörtschach am Wörthersee, a surrounding that set the tone for several lyrical works. The Second has been called “Brahms’s Pastoral,” but that ignores its dualistic nature. The first two movements are long, flowing, and serious; the latter two are lighter and more good natured. In many ways, the symphony looks back to Haydn, Beethoven, and Brahms’s First Serenade. Describing it to Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick, the composer wrote that, “The melodies fly so thickly here that you have to be careful not to step on one,” but to Fritz Simrock he described the symphony as, “so melancholy that you can’t stand it. I have never written anything so sad...the score must appear with a black border.” The truth lies in the middle. The title of Reinhold Brinkmann’s book, Late Idyll: The Second Symphony of Johannes Brahms, encapsulates the work well: a look back over a life of great music darkened by rough beginnings, the death of his mother that inspired the German Requiem, voluntary exile from Germany, good times in the resorts of Austria, frustration with women, euphoric yet tragic years with the Schumanns, and a long, complex relationship with Clara Schumann.

Allegro non Troppo begins with a three-note rocking motto dropping to a pedal. That motto is the germ for the entire symphony, just as the motto of Beethoven’s Eroica serves the first movement of that work. Out of it grows an elegant theme in the horns. The winds serenely pick it up, only to be interrupted by dark diminished chords in the low brass, to which startled high winds reply with the motto. This use of trombones and tuba was unusual for Brahms, who explained to composer Vinzenz Lachner that, “I…wanted to manage…without trombones and tried to…but their first entrance…I can’t get along without it, thus the trombones.”2 After a flowing waltzlike theme emerges in the violins, Brahms turns to rhythmic staccato figures until the cellos sing a flowing second theme similar to the so-called “Brahms Lullaby.” Thereon, he plays with these ideas often using heavy dotted and typically Brahmsian rhythms. The complex, flowing development creates power with thrusting dotted rhythms and by driving ideas up from the pedal after the motto. This time, the dark, low brass interruptions sound like howls. The invention and power of this development are impressive and incisive, but the overall flow feels seamlessly melodic. The coda lightens things with a lyrical horn solo and delicate wind figures.

The Adagio begins with a plunging theme in the cellos under a rising, less apparent line in the bassoons; the cellos extend that theme with wandering passagework. Upper strings and winds take over the cello melody, roaming through textures thickened with syncopation. After a halting, syncopated climb by the winds, clouds gather and skies darken. Agitation is in the air, and strings twice dive to moans on the motto from a trombone and tuba. After the winds sound the opening cello theme, a flowing tune in the strings recalls the “Brook” from Beethoven’s Pastoral. An ominous climax sounds against running strings. The winds repeat the cello theme, and, finally, peace. In both these movements, Brahms keeps the listener off balance with shifting harmonies and displaced rhythms and downbeats.

The Allegretto Grazioso (with the form ABABA, an intermezzo with two trios), changes the mood as it looks back to the plainer first Minuet from the First Serenade. The A sections are a Bohemian-style dance based on a derivative of the motto. The B’s are skittering prestos.

The Haydnesque melody beginning the Allegro con Spirito displaysa light-hearted valedictory grandeur that is subtly related to the finale melody in the First Symphony. Also present is a “gathering of the peasants” feel from Beethoven’s Pastorale. The bustling settles down to a broad Elgarian tune; swirling winds calm things more, and the opening idea returns quietly like people whispering among themselves. The bustle resumes but is quelled by somber downward figures anticipating the Tragic Overture (1880). As if starting over, the opening returns quietly, the bustling bursts forth followed by the Elgarian tune followed by more bustling and what sounds like another gathering. A joyful rush full of runs and fanfares in the brass culminates in a startling D Major chord.

—Roger Hecht

Roger Hecht plays trombone in the Mercury Orchestra and Bay Colony Brass (where he is the Operations/Personnel Manager). He is a former member of the Syracuse Symphony, Lake George Opera, New Bedford Symphony, and Cape Ann Symphony, as well as trombonist and orchestra manager of Lowell House Opera, Commonwealth Opera, and MetroWest Opera. He is a regular reviewer forAmerican Record Guide, contributed to Classical Music: Listener’s Companion, and has written articles on music for the Elgar Society Journal and Positive Feedback Magazine. His fiction collection, The Audition and Other Stories, includes a novella about a trombonist preparing for and taking a major orchestra audition (English Hill Press, 2013).

1 Brahms is a difficult subject for biographers because he destroyed many such materials.

2 Brahms uses trombones more in this symphony than in any other. Brinkmann wrote extensively in Late Idyll about that and Brahms’s vacillating over adding the tuba, which he did not use in the other symphonies.

Read about Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1