Program Notes by Dr. K. Dawn Grapes
Date of Composition: 1877
Duration: 43 minutes
Although Johannes Brahms (1833–1897) was born and raised in the German town of Hamburg, he spent much of his adulthood in Vienna, where he gained a reputation as a bit of an eccentric. An introvert by nature, he often exhibited a carefully cultivated brusque persona that kept all but his closest friends at a distance. Even so, recollections of those who knew him well, as well as numerous letters he penned, reveal a man of wit and tenderness who appreciated all kinds of beauty, whether found in natural surroundings or in the strains of a favorite song.
As a young man, Brahms devoted a great deal of time to studying music from the Renaissance and Baroque eras. He also held a certain reverence for the Classical era greats who came before him. Thus, his music finds solid footing in the past. He appreciated the foundation provided by established forms such as theme and variations and sonata-allegro, and he used them to structure many of his instrumental works. At a time when literary-inspired programmatic music called for newer, more adaptable forms and genres, Brahms’s choice to compose sonatas, quartets, and symphonies was interpreted by some as conservative and old-fashioned. Contemporaneous musicologist Wolfgang Sandberger even labelled his music “altdeutsch” (old German). And yet Brahms took those genre and forms and adapted them to his own needs, demonstrating intellectual innovations that lurk beneath the surface. In fact, in 1933 Arnold Schoenberg recognized him as “Brahms, the Progressive.”
Much has been made of the amount of time it took Brahms to complete his First Symphony—more than fourteen years. Some say this was due to enormous pressure put upon him by an article written by mentor Robert Schumann, in which he was declared the German musical successor to Beethoven. Certainly this weighty prophesy was exacerbated by Brahms’s exacting nature, which caused him to revise many of his works and even destroy those he felt were subpar in any way. By the time Brahms finished his first full symphony in 1876, he was already well established as a performing pianist, conductor, and composer. He did not need the symphony to solidify his artistic standing, but its success moved him onto a new level of accomplishment. The event also released something within him, for it was only a year later that he completed a second. The composer found inspiration for his Symphony No. 2 in D Major, op. 73 during a summer vacation at Lake Wörthersee in Pörtschach, Austria. Of his time there, he wrote, “The first day was so beautiful that I absolutely wanted to spend the second here, and the second so beautiful that I stay on for now!”
The Second Symphony is often described as the most melodious and sunny of Brahms’s four, but such statements do not look beyond a luminous veneer. Much like the man himself, the work presents bipolar moments of light and darkness, as well as brooding, wistfulness, contentment, and excitement, all framed in a rich depth of orchestral splendor. Themes in each of the four movements grow organically from a three-note opening fragment heard in the low strings, tying the piece together in cyclic cohesion. The symphony is at once charming, heartfelt, and substantial, fulfilling the promise foreseen by Schumann so many years earlier.
© Dr. K. Dawn Grapes, 2023