17 Apr 2013

Brahms – Symphony No. 2 in D Major, op. 73

by Jeff Counts

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, strings.

Duration: 43 minutes in four movements.

THE COMPOSER – JOHANNES BRAHMS (1833-1897) – Brahms was so busy with travel and performance during his later years that he had to reserve his summers for secluded composition time. His preferred location in 1877 was the resort town of Pörtschach on Lake Wörth in southern Austria. He wrote happily of his “pleasant abode in the Castle” but admitted with his typical good humor that his rooms where actually located in the housekeepers quarters.

THE MUSIC – With his shoulders noticeably unweighted after the decades-long crucible of his first symphony, Brahms produced a second with very little fuss in that genial lakeside atmosphere. Gone was the earnest gravity and historical pressure and in its place was a spontaneous sense of warmth and lightness. Brahms’ good mood during the process was evident in his correspondence. He wrote of melodies flowing “so freely that one must be careful not to trample them.” Also present in his letters was a sense of mischief about the character of his new symphony. Brahms enjoyed giving his friends false impressions about the music by routinely referring to his “latest” as “dirge-like” and listing the key as F minor to keep everyone guessing. Brahms’ 2nd is often compared to Beethoven’s “Pastoral” because of the generally pleasant veneer both works have in relation to their stormy predecessors and also because of how much sophistication there is just below their surfaces. Brahms 2nd, though so much less “serious” to the ear that his 1st, is a work of amazingly careful detail and structural rigor. Brahms was never in at the fore of the avant-garde during his career but he was a master at refining and thoroughly exploring the pre-existing forms of his day. In terms of craft and economy (Brahms’ best music is often described as having “not one note out of place”), Symphony No. 2 is representative of a melodic genius in his glory years.

THE WORLD – Oglala Lakota war leader Crazy Horse was killed while resisting confinement in 1877. Also that year, the Russo-Turkish War began, the first Championships at Wimbledon were held and the Martian moons Phobos and Deimos were discovered.

THE CONNECTION – Brahms 2 was most recently performed by the Utah Symphony on the Masterworks Series in 2009. Carlos Kalmar conducted.