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JOHANNES BRAHMS (1833-1897)

Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 73 (1877)

I. Allegro non troppo

II. Adagio non troppo

III. Allegretto grazioso (quasi andantino)

IV. Allegro con spirito

Johannes Brahms spent 14-years composing his First Symphony (1855-1876), but it took only four months to complete his Second (1877). The long gestation period for the premiere opus is a perspective glimpse into a composer operating under high personal standards and the far-reaching influence of a musical titan.

 

When Brahms was born in 1833, nearly a decade had passed since Beethoven's Ninth Symphony premiered in Vienna. Yet, even after three decades, a 22-year old Brahms was uncomfortable broaching the symphonic form. Beethoven's colossal influence of redefining the symphony into the magnum-opus lingered, and Brahms being his harshest critic, needed time to exorcise the grasp that Beethovenʻs ghost possessed of the form. Premiered in 1876, the First Symphony was worth the wait. Praised as the best symphony since 1824 (referencing Beethoven's Ninth), it was a stunning endorsement given Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique, and all the Mendelssohn symphonies had since debuted. There was no mistaking; the influence of Beethoven was inescapable, front and center. But Brahms had accomplished what few composers do on their first attempt. Rarely are the first symphonies celebrated. Haydn, Mozart, and even Beethoven's first symphonies recede into the shadows of their mature works. Like his colleague and close friend Robert Schumann, Brahms contributed just four symphonies in his lifetime, but they are all four beloved gems in the repertoire.

 

Following the premiere, a confident Brahms jumped straight to composing the sophomore opus a few months later, completing the work swiftly at the summer resort of Pörtschach in Austria. On December 30, 1877, the work premiered with the Vienna Philharmonic under Hans Richter. Where the First Symphony roared with bold, strong, and glorious might in C-minor, the Second Symphony elevates to D-major and sings with a garden-fresh bounty of soulful melodies. The score runs 40-minutes over four movements and calls for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, and strings.

 

I. Allegro non troppo

The symphonic day begins with a quiet morning of four pitches in the cello and bass. This melodic seed evolves and holds together the entire Allegro non troppo. Horns and bassoon bear fruit with the first theme, and after a few distant rumbles in the timpani, a D-major sunshine blossoms with the first violins. Following some delicate variation in the winds, the jewel of the movement (and possibly the entire opus) comes with the second theme, a lush lullaby starting in the violas and cellos. The dark-rich melody in F-sharp minor leads to a rhythmically active transition, closing the exposition with the lullaby's return, now in the key of an A-major afternoon. 

 

Motive and melodies mingle and blend, moving from key to key in the development. It's not all sunshine here; there are several passing summer storms. In 3/4, the moderate waltz feel obscures with patterns that break the three-beat feeling (hemiola). Four bars of a descending scale in the flute and clarinet mark an end to passing showers. Oboes enter with the opening horn melody and the recapitulation of sunshine. A coda starting with solo horn and strings adds a few dark clouds for one last summarization of the day's events before pizzicato, and a long, deep exhale on D-major brings the day to a close.

 

II. Adagio non troppo

A more serious character opens the Adagio non troppo with a substantial 12-bar cello melody in 4/4. A bassoon contributes a counter melody, and all seems gloomy at first, but the apprehension subsides into sweet lovesickness. This duality of turbulence and serenity, emotional angst, and delightful contentment is autobiographical. Solo horn offers a wandering phrase for the orchestra to contemplate, and a second cheerful theme in the winds introduces music in 12/8, stirring the pulse with an uplifting swagger. The creme of the movement comes when Brahms combines the 4/4 melody in the violins with the stirring triplet rhythms. The friction of these two rhythms speaks to two characters drawn together but never indulging. Brahms first met Robert and Clara Schumann in 1853, and the story of this trio is a well-known saga of personal struggle and deep friendship. If this music tells Robert and Clara's love story or the strong friendship and affection between Brahms and Clara, then perhaps the duality is a glimpse into unspoken love, loss, and devotion.

 

III. Allegretto grazioso (quasi andantino)

Opposites attract in the five-part Allegretto graziosos (Quasi Andante). In 3/4, the movement opens with a G-major minuet of woodwinds musing above cello pizzicato. Next, the Presto ma non assai of busy dancing strings and winds in 2/4 provides staccato contrast. The minuet and presto sections repeat with some variation, but when the presto returns, it is cast into 3/8, elevating the excitement into a scherzo. Finally, the minuet music returns the movement to its ruminative beginnings.

 

IV. Allegro con spirito

After the last notes of the finale sounded at the premiere, Brahms had won the audience. The orchestra encored the final movement, and it was a riot. Envision a surprise birthday party, the quiet intensity of friends in waiting, lights off, holding back laughter, the buzzing electricity of silent anticipation, and this is the opening of the Allegro con spirito. The strings begin with a joyous 12-bar melody that demands the loudest dynamic, but Brahms instructs the music to be played sotto voce (under the voice). An even softer pianissimo dynamic is instructed when the woodwinds enter, shushing the mass to hold their horses; the coordinated shout-out comes in bar 23. Festivities underway, the strings shine with the second theme in A-major, and it is gushing with affection, ever pushing forward with an embracing warmth. Finally, woodwind filigree and pizzicato lead to the exposition close with a delightful bounce. 

 

The development mirrors the start but diverts into motives and different keys, settling on a section of chromatic triplets conveying drunken ecstasy and satisfaction. The transition back to the opening theme uses descending fourths in the flute, clarinet, and horns over softly sustained strings. Ten years later, this music will mirror almost precisely the opening dawn music of Mahler's Symphony No. 1. As the movement triumphs with trumpet fanfare and walls of sonorous might, Beethoven's spirit is undeniably present, lifting Brahms into the light of summer and symphonic glory, the successor of a giant's legacy confirmed.

 

Johannes Brahms was born on May 7, 1833, in Hamburg, Germany, and died on April 3, 1897, in Vienna, Austria. © MTF

(Notes by Michael-Thomas Foumai)

ABOUT THIS PERFORMANCE (MASTERWORKS 5):

2019 National Sphinx Competition winner Sterling Elliot and maestro Dane Lam join forces with your Hawaiʻi Symphony Orchestra in a program with six degrees of separation. A lost treasure rediscovered, Mahler's Blumine, once part of the mammoth First Symphony, sounds once more along with Popper's electrifying Hungarian Rhapsody, Brahms's radiant Symphony No. 2, and the spellbinding Clockwerk of Australian composer Maria Grenfell.