Brahms Symphony No. 2

SUNDAY, March 8, 2020

BrahmsSymphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 73, 1877, age 44

It was was composed in the summer of 1877, during a visit to Austria. Brahms started working on his 1st symphony all the way back in 1854 and did not complete it until more than 20 years later. His difficulty writing his 1st symphony can be summed up in his own words:

“You will never know how the likes of us feel when we hear the tramp of a giant like Beethoven behind us.” 

His 2nd symphony appeared less than a year later and was his personal favorite, which makes me feel good to know because it is my favorite also. His difficult writing his 1st symphony can be summed up in his own wordsl

“You will never know how the likes of us feel when we hear the tramp of a giant like Beethoven behind us.”

“Pastoral”? Not really…

Brahms 2nd is often compared to Beethoven’s 6th symphony, labeled “Pastoral”, but this is much darker in parts, although the end is quite upbeat. He wrote this to his publisher on November 22, 1877:

„Die neue Symphonie ist so melancholisch, daß Sie es nicht aushalten. Ich habe noch nie so was Trauriges, Molliges geschrieben: die Partitur muß mit Trauerrand erscheinen.“ [“The new symphony is so melancholy that you will not be able to bear it. I have never written something so sad, so ‘mollig’: the score must appear in mourning.”]

His German is a complicated way to say that this symphony is complicated emotionally, and in parts quite intimate. But what he wrote was also very misleading and a horrible description of the symphony. Brahms was known to be rather dry in his humor, probably very much like Rachmaninov.


It had to be postponed because the players were so preoccupied with learning Das Rheingold by Wagner that rehearsal was held back. It was given in Vienna on 30 December 1877 by the Vienna Philharmonic under the direction of Hans Richter and was very successful.


2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, and strings

I. Allegro non troppo, D major, around 15 minutes

I read through descriptions of form in both English and German and find them wordy and confusing. The important point is that the 1st movement is in sonata form, and it has a bit of a waltz feel because it’s in 3/4. But The exact description could be anything, since there are so many dance forms in 3/4.

There is an introduction before the exposition, which is not repeated in this performance is not repeated. This is a performance decision, and it shortens the length by five minutes. Kleiber apparently thought using the repeat made the first movement too long. There is a famous melody, 2nd theme, that is linked to the famous “Brahms Lullaby”. There is a similarity, but it is not the same.

II. Adagio non troppo in B major, but it also moves to minor, around 9 minutes

To me the most important things is this: How did he end up in B major? The expected key would be A major, which is normal for a symphony starting in D major. The answer is morphing. He finishes the last movement on a D major chord, then morphs to F# major, a double morph: A D F# goes to A# C# F#, then he goes to B major. The last move is not quite a morph, since he did not go to Bm first, but it’s close. The rest is just a tonal adventure, and the form is pretty complicated. But the most important thing is that even though the movement is marked as major, really important parts are in minor and very emotional. So in spirit, in what we feel, it’s not happy, or light. I’m marking it half and half.

III. Allegretto grazioso (quasi andantino) – Presto ma non assai – Allegretto grazioso (quasi andantino) – G major, around 5 minutes

All that Italian simple says: Somewhat fast, but like “soemwhat slow”, which actually is as clear as mud. Common sense says “not too fast, and not too slow”, right out of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Then there is a middle section – which happens twice – that is marked fast, but not too much. Confused? Conductors end up picking tempos according to instinct and rely very little on such word salad. The really neat thing is that he starts the movement G major by double morphing. It’s sly, slick and sneaky! This movement is also in 3/4, so call it a minuet, or an intermezzo. The middle, fast section has a very tricky rhythm that’s almost impossible to describe in writing, but it involves a lot of hemiolas.

IV. Allegro Con Spirito in D major, about 9 minutes

This time the Italian actually makes senes: fast with spirit. It starts with very quiet strings, then there is a sudden loud attack. This movement is also in sonata form, so the 2nd theme comes in A major. Labels are hard, because you end up saying that “theme B is in A”, and maybe that’s why most people talk about 1st and 2nd themes. Then it’s back to the exposition again, or so it seems, but no – this time it moves right into the development section, always the most interesting part of any movement. There is a slow section, which is unexpected, at the end of the development, then back to the the beginning, including the soft entrance. This time the 2nd theme is also in D major (typical form), but before ending  there is another section that sounds almost like a 2nd development section, and that gets really slow at the end. Then it picks up speed again and wraps up with a coda.


5 thoughts on “Brahms Symphony No. 2

  1. There’s so much music that constantly gets tweeked little by little or in big chunks. Its like when your memory slowly changes things over time, you’ll eventually end up with something different entirely.

  2. I had never realized Beethoven’s effect on other composers, so that Brahms initially would be scared of following those footsteps and leaving his own mark.


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