A Winning Spirit
April 20, 2024
Join us for our beloved April concert, featuring the three Young Artist Competition winners. Stay tuned for a TBE (To Be Enjoyed!) repertoire to be announced in November. The BMSO will also perform Brahms Symphony No. 2.
Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 73 by Brahms
Brahms composed his Second Symphony in the summer of 1877; Hans Richter conducted the first performance in Vienna on December 30, 1877. The score calls for pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons; four horns; two trumpets; three trombones and tuba; timpani; and strings. Performance time is approximately forty minutes. Within months after the long-awaited premiere of his First Symphony, Brahms produced another one. The two were as different as night and day—logically enough, since the first had taken two decades of struggle and soul-searching and the second was written over a summer holiday. If it truly was Beethoven's symphonic achievement that stood in Brahms' way for all those years, nothing seems to have stopped the flow of this new symphony in D major. Brahms had put his fears and worries behind him. This music was composed at the picture-postcard village of Portschach, on the Worthersee, where Brahms had rented two tiny rooms for his summer holiday. The rooms apparently were ideal for composition, even though the hallway was so narrow that Brahms' piano couldn't be moved up the stairs. "It is delightful here," Brahms wrote to Fritz Simrock, his publisher, soon after arriving, and the new symphony bears witness to his apparent delight. Later that summer, when Brahms' friend, the amateur musician Theodore Billroth, played through the score for the first time, he wrote to the composer at once: "It is all rippling streams, blue sky, sunshine, and cool green shadows. How beautiful it must be at Portschach." Eventually listeners began to call this Brahms' Pastoral Symphony, again raising the comparison with Beethoven. If Brahms' Second Symphony has a true companion, however, it is the violin concerto that Brahms would write the next summer in Portschach—cut from the same D major cloth and reflecting the mood and even some of the thematic material of the symphony.
When Brahms sent the first movement of his new symphony off to Clara Schumann, she predicted that this music would fare better with the public than the tough and stormy First, and she was right. The first performance, on December 30, 1877, in Vienna under Hans Richter, was a triumph, and the third movement had to be repeated. When Brahms conducted the second performance in Leipzig just after the beginning of the new year, the audience was again enthusiastic. But Brahms' real moment of glory came late in the summer of 1878, when his new symphony was a great success in his native Hamburg, where he had twice failed to win a musical post he coveted. Still, it would be another decade before the Honorary Freedom of Hamburg—the city's highest honor—was given to him, and Brahms remained ambivalent about his birthplace for the rest of his life. In the meantime, the D major symphony found receptive listeners nearly everywhere it was played. (Theodore Thomas, who would later found the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, introduced the symphony to the United States on October 3, 1878, at a concert in New York City.) From the opening bars of the Allegro non troppo—with their bucolic horn calls and woodwind chords—we prepare for the radiant sunlight and pure skies that Billroth promised. And, indeed, with one soaring phrase from the first violins, Brahms' great pastoral scene unfolds before us.
Although another of Billroth's letters to the composer suggests that "a happy, cheerful mood permeates the whole work." Brahms knows that even a sunny day contains moments of darkness and doubt—moments when pastoral serenity threatens to turn tragic. It is that underlying tension, even drama, that gives this music its remarkable character. A few details stand out: there are two particularly bracing passages for the three trombones in the development section, and much later, just before the coda, a wavering horn call that emerges, serene and magical. This is followed, as if it were the most logical thing in the world, by a jolly bit of dance-hall waltzing before the music flickers and dies.
Eduard Hanslick thought the Adagio more conspicuous for the development of the themes than for the worth of the themes themselves. Hanslick was not the first critic to be wrong—this movement has very little to do with development as we know it—although it is unlike him to be so far from the mark when dealing with music by Brahms. Hanslick did notice that the third movement has the relaxed character of a serenade. It is, for all its initial grace and charm, a serenade of some complexity, with two frolicsome presto passages (smartly disguising the main theme) and a wealth of shifting accents. The finale is jubilant and electrifying; the clouds seem to pass from sight after the hushed opening bars, and the music blazes forward, almost unchecked, to the very end. For all Brahms' concern about measuring up to Beethoven, he seldom mentioned his admiration for Haydn and his ineffable high spirits, but that is who Brahms most resembles here. There is, of course, the great orchestral roar of triumph that always suggests Beethoven. Many moments are pure Brahms, like the ecstatic clarinet solo that rises above the bustle only minutes into the movement, or the warm and striding theme in the strings that immediately follows. The extraordinary brilliance of the final bars—as unbridled an outburst as any in Brahms—was not lost on his great admirer Antonín Dvorák when he wrote his Carnival Overture. - Notes by Dr. Patrick Riley (Bemidji)