Friday, October 10, 2014

Brahms - Symphony No. 2 In D Major

When Robert Schumann proclaimed Johannes Brahms as the new Messiah of German music, Brahms was but twenty years old. Schumann was an influential music critic as well as composer, and his high praises were a double-edged sword to the young Brahms. Schumann became  mentor and introduced him to other composers and musicians, but Schumann's declaration also put a great deal of pressure on a musical genius who was far from being the master of music he was to become.

Brahms had been taught piano by Eduard Marxen in Hamburg, and Brahms early compositions were naturally for the instrument he was most familiar with. By meticulous self-study (and the mentoring of older musicians such as Schumann) he acquainted himself with choral music and the orchestral repertoire. Brahms by nature was very self-critical and destroyed many compositions outright. The proclamation by Schumann increased his self criticism to the point that he struggled with his works without having the technique to achieve what he thought was worthy of Schumann's confidence in him. He was tagged as being the German composer that would continue the great symphonic tradition, and after 20 years of sketching, working, revising and reworking, the 1st Symphony In C Minor was completed in 1876 when Brahms was 43 yeas old.

Eduard Marxen
The years that it took Brahms to complete his first symphony must have been good training ground, for his 2nd Symphony In D Major was composed in a single summer in 1877.  The 2nd Symphony is decidedly different in character than the 1st, and has been compared to Beethoven's Sixth Symphony in mood.  The 2nd Symphony is in four movements:

I. Allegro non troppo - Horns and low strings start with the beginnings of one of the major themes of the movement. The theme finally emerges complete in the full orchestra. The second theme arrives shortly and is taken from a song Brahms wrote that is popularly known as Brahms' Lullaby. A section of new material follows. The second theme is played through again, and the development section begins with the working out of the first theme, with the drama increasing with the added weight of the brass as the orchestra transforms the opening chords of the movement. Other themes of the exposition are heard until a short transition brings back the 'lullaby' theme. A coda sets the mood to one of tranquility until a lilting variation of the first theme is played. The figures that opened the movement briefly appear and fade into a quiet ending.

II. Adagio non troppo - A melancholy theme is heard in the cellos in B major. The theme continues in the upper strings. The second theme of this sonata form movement is played mostly by the woodwinds and horns. Part of the first theme returns, as does the second theme, a creative way of including development of both themes within the exposition. The short development section grows dramatic, and leads to a recapitulation that continues to expand and transform the two main themes. A short coda plays the first theme one last time and the movement comes to a close.

III. Allegretto grazioso (quasi andantino) -  A gently dancing theme is played by the oboe that gives way to a brisk veriant of it in music that is almost Mendelssohnian (or daresay even Tchaikovskian) in its mood. The original tune returns, only to be interrupted by section of different material, which in turn is interrupted by a return to the brisk variant of the main theme. The main theme returns in the strings and the theme carries the movement to a gentle end.

IV. Allegro con spirito - The strings bring quiet motion to the start of the finale until there is a flash of volume as the theme that was hinted at comes to full bloom. This theme has been gleaned from the first theme of the first movement. Brahms plays the dance master in music that suggests his own rough-around-the-edges humor with clumping syncopation. The good humor of the music belies the complexity of it as there are sections of counterpoint that are far from dry and pedantic, but add to the total of effect.  The last section of the movement has the orchestra playing all-out in tremendous waves of sound and movement, one of the most thrilling endings of anything Brahms wrote.

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