Symphony No. 2, Op. 73 (1877)

By Reinhold Brinkmann, Harvard University

Written for the concert Admiration and Emulation: The Friendship of Brahms and Dvorák, performed on May 14, 1997 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

The four symphonies of Brahms are to be placed in pairs, both chronologically and contextually. Regarding the mutual relationship of the first two, Philipp Spitta remarked as long ago as 1892: “The first two symphonies form the imaginative contrast that is often noticeable in Brahms and must be regarded as a pair that has sprung from the self-same, deeply hidden root.” Recent studies have suggested that the First Symphony (finished 1876) marks the point where, after working from a careful plan over several decades, Brahms finally achieved and demonstrated a liberating self-detachment from his overly powerful symphonic inheritance-that is, the Beethoven tradition. By reinterpreting, by emphatically “misreading” (Harold Bloom) the Beethovenian symphonic “plot,” and with the Alpine horn melody and the choral-like hymn, that is, with nature and religion instead of history as the triumphant goals of his First Symphony, Brahms was clearing and paving the way for his own symphonic idiom. Thus, the Second Symphony (composed in 1877), after the First’s act of liberation, begins at the point where the latter ended-with the undisguised nature-metaphor in the horns and winds, and its pastoral “tone”: manifestly a world without conflicts, it seems.

But the natural note at the beginning of Brahms’s Second has only the semblance of spontaneity. The main theme of the first movement, with its 3/4 time, the triadic arpeggiation as well as the rhythm, clearly recalls the main theme of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony: even the nature-metaphor is determined reflectively; there is , in Brahms, no naive immediacy that has escaped from the idea and obligation of history. The two superimposed components of the thematic configuration itself-the horn/wind theme and the bass drone with its one-measure motive-form a hypermetrical conflict, their simultaneity is in metrical disagreement. A few measures later comes the extraordinary moment of the dissonant trombone chords, an extreme darkening and standstill within the symphony’s opening, casting a long shadow ahead over the entire movement; later there is the elegiac second theme in minor, there are the harmonic and metrical tensions of the development section, and finally, there is the ambiguous ending of the movement with its superimposition of the sub- dominant C minor and the dominant D major chords. In an important letter on the Second Symphony, Brahms himself referred to the state of melancholy as a signature of this music.

The second movement, a demanding, expansive Adagio with a grand cantilena, adheres to this expressive state. But then comes a particularly light, uncomplicated, and relatively short third movement (most beloved by the general public and repeated immediately upon the audience’s request at the symphony’s premiere). And finally, there is the closing movement, not a “Finale” in the emphatically symphonic meaning of the late nineteenth century, but more a Haydnesque type of Kehraus, a joyful “last dance.” Thus, the entire symphony is clearly divided into two polar “halves” of quite different expressive qualities: two “melancholic” movements are followed by two “serene” ones. And the question is whether the latter are able to counterbalance the former, whether they can convincingly transform the melancholic state of mind into a serene view of the world. At least quantitatively there is no balance: the first two movements take about 30 minutes as opposed to the 13 minutes of the last two (times measured at the 1877 premiere). For this author there is also an aesthetic discrepancy. In his understanding of art and his experience of music, the third and the fourth movements are too “lightweight” after the profundities of the first two. Quantitatively as well as qualitatively, the Second Symphony seems curiously “top-heavy.” But this question as well as the proposed answer are handed over to the ear and mind of tonight’s musicians and their audience.