BORN: May 7, 1833. Hamburg
DIED: April 3, 1897. Vienna
COMPOSED: Summer of 1877
WORLD PREMIERE: December 30, 1877. Hans Richter and the Vienna Philharmonic
US PREMIERE: October 3, 1878. Adolf Neuendorff and the New York Philharmonic
SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—February 14, 1913. Henry Hadley led. MOST RECENT—October 2016. Michael Tilson Thomas conducted
INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, and strings
DURATION: About 40 mins
THE BACKSTORY Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schumann—compared to Johannes Brahms, they had barely left school when they launched their symphonic careers. Brahms saw those forebears as examples, inspiring and intimidating. For years he remained determined to join their league, to harness the orchestra as they had and add his name to the historic line they represented. By the time he pulled it off with the premiere of his First Symphony, he was already forty-two.
Brahms had been an early bloomer. He was barely out of his teens when Robert Schumann, unable to curb his enthusiasm, introduced him in the pages of Europe’s most influential music journal, the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, as “the one . . . chosen to express the most exalted spirit of the times in an ideal manner, one who [sprang] fully armed from the head of Jove. . . . [A] youth at whose cradle the graces and heroes of old stood guard.” Overnight, Brahms encountered the delight of fame and the dread of high expectations. The pressure all but stopped him before he could move on to larger-scale compositions than the piano works that had excited Schumann.
Part of the problem was that Brahms was such a harsh self-critic. He honed his material until he was satisfied and held himself to tough standards. Consider: He composed more than twenty—possibly as many as thirty—string quartets besides the three he published. (He burned the others.) Ultimately, through the fusion of hard work, reflection, and inspiration that makes for genius, Brahms recovered from Schumann’s prophecy and fulfilled his promise in songs and piano music and chamber works and choruses. He approached the orchestra more deliberately, producing two serenades, a piano concerto, and his German Requiem before retreating exclusively into more intimate forms.
Meanwhile, the music world expected him to write a symphony. Come on, he said: “You have no idea what it’s like to hear the footsteps of a giant like that behind you”—the giant being Beethoven, whose echoing footsteps forced Brahms to question if he could ever do anything on a par with the author of nine symphonies that seemed to define the limits of what music could express.
But while Brahms was keeping the press at bay with his talk about the giant, he was busy trying to hear his own symphonic voice. When he was forty, he introduced the Variations on a Theme of Haydn. For all its generosity of spirit, this is an exercise in how to create and arrange sonic shapes. The Haydn Variations marked the first time in a decade Brahms had used the orchestra, and the first time in fifteen years—since his Serenade No. 1—that he had written a purely orchestral work for a sizable ensemble. The forty-five works between the serenade and the variations had established Brahms as one of Europe’s leading composers—and the leading composer among those who embraced the traditional ideals of abstract music as opposed to music drama and tone poems. Brahms’s First Symphony, fourteen years in the writing, was instantly recognized as the greatest symphony of the past half-century, since Beethoven’s Ninth had first been heard in 1824.
Brahms knew now that he could get it right. In four months he turned out a second symphony during a pleasant summer at the Austrian lakeside resort of Pörtschach. The First Symphony is an epic. The Second, as musicologist Reinhold Brinkman has said, is an idyll. When it was unveiled at the end of 1877, the public loved it.
THE MUSIC Listen to the first three notes in the low strings. From those basic building blocks—that grouping of notes and the gesture they form—Brahms generates an opening movement that sounds miraculously varied, one tune leading to another, but somehow always tied to home base. This symphony is almost invariably described as “sunny,” and that is often how it’s approached. But there are clouds in this sky. Even the theme that resembles Brahms’s famous Lullaby turns poignant. And the coda is a wistful evocation of regret—tempered by the jaunty little tune that sounds almost tacked on as an afterthought. Such a rapid mood-change is another hallmark of this symphony: the alternation of light and dark. Helen Schlegel in E.M. Forster’s Howards End said that Beethoven can be trusted because, even when his music is at its most resplendent, the goblins return. The dramatis personae of the Brahms Second may not include goblins, but in their place we find characters who know that good times can reverse quickly.
Two such characters are the main players in the second movement, whose stern opening changes almost immediately into a glorious melody of enormous length and breadth. Throughout this movement, one voice is pensive and searching, the other full of optimism. This is densely argued, concentrated music, music that can seem—but only seem—to wander as it grows increasingly meditative, and which repays close attention. The Allegretto grazioso that follows is Brahms at his most lighthearted. It offers a welcome break after the Adagio; and, when considered as a pair with that movement, it reinforces the Adagio’s two voices: the concurrence of pensive and joyful.
The finale proved such a hit at the symphony’s first performance that it was encored. The opening hush erupts suddenly in a shout—another quick cut from one character to its opposite. At the end, the orchestra embraces a heroic transformation of the movement’s poignant second subject, that sweetly killing reminder that every silver lining masks a cloud. To call the first appearance of this theme a memento mori would be going too far. Think of it instead as Brahms’s attempt to present a complete picture, an acknowledgment of the world’s serious demands and an assurance that, rising to the challenge, we can hope for the kind of payoff unleashed in this music’s final bars.—Larry Rothe
Larry Rothe, former editor of the Symphony’s program book, is author of Music for a City, Music for the World, a history of the San Francisco Symphony, and co-author of the essay collection For the Love of Music. Both books are available at the Symphony Store.
Davies Symphony Hall
201 Van Ness Ave
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