Release date: 27 October 2023
With his article introducing a young Brahms to the readers of the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, Robert Schumann had attracted the attention of the musical world on a budding musician in whom he foresaw an immense potential. He had also – somewhat prophetically – sketched the path which Brahms would eventually tread: a path leading him to become “Beethoven’s heir” in the field of symphonic music.
The figure of Beethoven loomed large over the first Romantic generation – and partly also over the second. Although he had lived on the chronological border between Classicism and Romanticism, the Romantics were quick to identify him as the embodiment of the Genius. This was a typically Romantic category, which merged in itself the isolated greatness of the Romantic Hero and the brainpower and extreme sensitivity which marked the artist, and particularly the musician. It is not by chance that several among the most important philosophers of the nineteenth century put music at the peak of their philosophical constructions, as the highest and most spiritual art. Thus, the combination of heroism, loneliness, virtue, artistry, and also – alas – of a merciless doom, which had deprived Beethoven of his hearing, all that contributed to the fashioning of the Beethoven myth.
And that myth would prove both a formidable stimulus, and also a terrible obstacle to the creativity of the Romantic composers. All strove to emulate him, but none seemed quite to succeed in the task. Brahms, who felt on his shoulders not only Beethoven’s heavy heritage, but also the expectations of some older composers, felt the duty of composing a masterly symphony, but he felt it as both a dream and a nightmare.
The first half of his magnificent compositional career can in fact be seen almost as a preparation for his First Symphony, whose gestation was immensely long, and for which some stupendous and obviously self-standing works – such as the First Piano Concerto – can almost be considered as preparatory sketches.
If the First Symphony received its final imprimatur approximately fifteen years after the jotting down of its first plans, and if its reception was by no means unconditionally enthusiastic, the exact opposite can be said of the Second Symphony. It was finished within a few months from the inception of its composition, and – except for a few fiascos in Germany, most notably in Dresden and Munich – it was greeted with general and warm approval.
Brahms wrote it in Portschach am Wörthersee, between the splendid Carinthian Alps and the equally magnificent lake, during the summer months of 1877. It was a habit of the mature Brahms to dedicate the summer months to composition, preferably surrounded by a stunning panorama. He did not complete it there, however; the finishing touches were given in October, during another stretch of vacation he was spending in Lichtental, near Baden-Baden, where he had gone to celebrate Clara Schumann’s birthday.
It was on that occasion that Brahms himself, together with Ignaz Brüll, premiered some parts of the work in the four-hand piano version which is recorded in this Da Vinci Classics CD. The setting was perhaps the ideal one for savouring such a masterpiece: a restricted audience of connoisseurs, the composer at the piano, together with another excellent musician, and the new Symphony progressively unveiled to their sympathetic ears.
Clara Schumann notated on her diary: “Johannes came this evening and played me the first movement of his Second Symphony in D major, which greatly delighted me. I find it in invention more significant than the first movement of the First Symphony. (…) I also heard a part of the last movement and am quite overjoyed with it. With this symphony he will have a more telling success with the public as well than he did with the First, much as musicians are captivated by the latter through its inspiration and wonderful working-out. (…) Johannes returned to Baden, where he plans to finish writing down his D-major Symphony”. The completion of the four-hand version followed in November, as Brahms wrote to Billroth: “I am setting the new symphony for four hands. It normally happens at more than the last minute, when I already have the fee in my pocket. This time just for your sake”.
This CD production, thus, allows us to relive, somehow, the enchanted experience of those fortunate first listeners. Of course, a symphony without an orchestra is not exactly the same thing as a symphony with a symphony orchestra; and this is particularly true for this Symphony, where orchestral timbre has a far from negligible role. In particular, the unusual presence of the tuba is a landmark timbral element of this work, and the dark colours of timpani and trombones had been on Brahms’ mind for some time. The rumbling of the timpani in pianissimo, followed by the chorale-like, ominous chords of the trombones and tuba in the first movement constitute an iconic passage of this Symphony, and a passage which troubled some of Brahms’ first listeners. It seemed out of place within a Symphony otherwise dominated by a much more serene mood, in marked contrast with the anguished atmosphere of the First Symphony. Vincenz Lachner expressed his perplexity to the composer, who replied that he could not renounce that moment of darkness: “I have to confess that I am,” the composer wrote, “a severely melancholic person, that black wings are constantly flapping above us, and that in my output – perhaps not entirely by chance – that symphony [the Second] is followed by a little essay about the great ‘Why.’ If you don’t know this, I will send it to you. It casts the necessary shadow on the serene symphony and perhaps accounts for those timpani and trombones”. The companion work was a motet, written in parallel with the symphony, and setting to music the lyrics beginning with “Why Is the Light Given to the Wretched?” (Warum ist das Licht gegeben dem Mühseligen op. 74 n. 1; the text is from the Book of Job, and its theodicy is “the great Why” of which Brahms spoke).
Notwithstanding this disquieting irruption of “the great Why”, the Second Symphony is generally suffused with a serene mood, so that it was dubbed “Brahms’ Pastoral Symphony” (stressing once more the omnipresent shadow of Beethoven) or “Schubert’s new Symphony”. The first movement opens with a motto which will recur throughout the work, and in which, once more, Brahms’ skill at orchestration is evident, with the soft combination of warm tones he manages to conjure. Also the second theme of the first movement is tinged with soft hues, and recalls a quintessentially Viennese atmosphere. Echoes from Schubert’s waltzes blend with reminiscences from Brahms’ own works, and, in particular, from the Wiegenlied (“Lullaby”) op. 49. By no means, however, is this Symphony dominated only by softness and warmth: there are many contrasting episodes, though most of them simply display different kinds of cheerfulness or good humour.
Among the notable moments of this extremely long first movement is doubtlessly the Coda, entrusted to the horn: an instrument deeply bound to nature and to the supernatural, as Weber had thoroughly demonstrated, and capable of evoking ancestral imaginations.
The second movement is probably the most enigmatic of all four. It is characterized by a rather uncertain mood, which resists being pinpointed or simplistically labelled. In spite of this (or precisely for this reason) it is hypnotically beautiful, also thanks to the cellos’ touching theme.
The third movement, Allegretto grazioso, had been defined by Brahms himself as a movement which would have begged to be encored, and this easy prophecy was easily fulfilled. It is so charming, nonchalant, ironic and spirited that the audience never tires of hearing it. It is motivically related to the first movement and to its opening motto, and its ternary rhythm does not hide Brahms’ interest in folk or “light” music. He was born in the northernmost areas of Germany, but he admired the humour and lightheartedness of the Viennese, perhaps slightly envying the Strauss family’s inexhaustible melodic vein and seductive themes.
The finale is really – as Clara Schumann felt – an intoxicating experience, also thanks to Brahms’ careful handling of orchestration, reserving the trombones for the summit of excitement and exhilaration. Given all this, one might remain puzzled when reading what Brahms wrote to his publisher Simrock: “The new symphony is so melancholy that you won’t stand it. I have never written anything so sad, so mollig: the score must appear with a black border. I have given enough warning. Are you really still proposing to buy yourself such a thing?”. But this was simply the kind of humour Brahms thought to be funny. On the same day he wrote to Elisabeth von Herzogenberg, disqualifying his Symphony as a mere “sinfonietta”; he said that “you need only sit down, with your little feet on the two pedals alternately, and strike the F minor chord for a good while, alternately in the bass and the treble, ff and pp – then you will gradually get the clearest picture of the ‘new one’”. And, one day later, to Adolf Schubring: “it’s a quite innocent, cheerful little thing; (…) its tender charms will be very pleasant for you”. So, what was Brahms really thinking of his Symphony?
He was probably rather proud of it, and these disparaging, downplaying remarks are likely to simply reveal his fondness for this masterpiece.
No equivocation is possible, however, as concerns the mood of the Overture he labelled as Tragic. It was conceived, along with its sibling, the Akademische Festouverture, between the Second and the Third Symphony, and, in Brahms’ own words the diptych was purposefully intended as a contrast of joy and sadness. The festive overture had been written as a thanksgiving gesture for an honorary doctorate; the Tragic Overture was instead a spontaneous undertaking of the composer. It has been suggested that it could have been inspired by Goethe’s Faust, but this has never been proved. Here too, as in the first movement of the Second Symphony, the ominous vibrations of the timpani create one of the most emotional moments of the work, which is almost entirely ruled by sad, dark tones.
These two great works, in their original version for four-hand piano duet, reveal Brahms’ mastery in creating symphonic compositions which are doubtlessly enriched by their instrumentation, but whose coherence and consistency allow them to remain splendid artworks even in a less luxuriant timbral characterization.
Chiara Bertoglio © 2023
Johannes Brahms: (b Hamburg, 7 May 1833; d Vienna, 3 April 1897). German composer. The successor to Beethoven and Schubert in the larger forms of chamber and orchestral music, to Schubert and Schumann in the miniature forms of piano pieces and songs, and to the Renaissance and Baroque polyphonists in choral music, Brahms creatively synthesized the practices of three centuries with folk and dance idioms and with the language of mid- and late 19th-century art music. His works of controlled passion, deemed reactionary and epigonal by some, progressive by others, became well accepted in his lifetime.