Right after Brahms completed his 15-year long journey of writing his first symphony in 1876, as if finally being freed from the long-lasting shadow of his predecessor Beethoven, the genie was let out of the bottle, Brahms finished his 2nd symphony swiftly over a summer vacation in 1877, all seems accomplished with ease given his much matured and superior orchestration craftsmanship. Contrasting with his first symphony, this piece is calm, pleasant and pastoral.
1. Allegro non troppo
Like his Symphony No. 1 & 3, the exposition section of the opening movement is expansive and complex, with rich elaboration of motives, theme variations and transitions; with all that interwoven together, the presentation of the theme group takes a bit over five minutes, and then repeated in its entirety; as a result in the exposition takes half of the whole movement.
Theme 1 starts on cello with the first measure presenting a key motif that permeates the whole movement, then the horn plays a calm and pastoral melody:
There is an extended part of the main theme; we could consider its first two bars derived from the opening motive, gracefully played out by the violins:
During a short development, the opening motif used in this passionate passage:
Theme 2 is based on what’s often referred to as Brahms’ Lullaby (from his Wiegenlied, Op. 49), gentle and sweet, played by viola and cello:
The opening motif is again heard during development section, much varied in rhythm, with a bit agitated mood:
2. Adagio non troppo
Contrasting first movement, the Adagio has a darker mood with an unsettling sense, though it calms down at the end. Theme 1 is again given by cello:
The 2nd theme is led by flute then clarinet, syncopated and with cello plucking on the beats:
There is a 3rd theme at the end of the exposition section, and it becomes a key source of material during development:
I’m not quite sure about the form of this movement; it seems mostly sonata form yet from the development through the point main theme was repeated (recapitulated), it sounded much like a variation.
3. Allegretto grazioso (quasi andantino)
This scherzo movement is much straightforward compared to the 2nd movement. The opening theme is a little sweet melody on oboe:
The middle section is quite obviously heard with time signature changed to 2/4:
4. Allegro con spirito
The fast 4/4 time and near ecstatic mood of the finale is quite a contrast to previous two movements, particularly the sudden thunderous burst of the full orchestra elaborating the main theme, which actually starts rather quietly yet a bit unsettling:
The broadly played theme 2 on strings give another contrasting tune against the jubilant first theme:
I was surprised to hear a few bars at the end of the development section that sounds so similar to the opening of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1:
The coda is so brilliantly derived from theme 2, which has become boisterous and joyful, then leads the movement to a triumphant end:
It is fascinating to hear maestro Leonard Bernstein analyzing the intricacies of the motifs and inter-linking themes across movements. For instance, he pointed out how the opening motif of first movement is inverted and turned into the main theme of the 3rd movement, and how it is also “fishing” into the main theme of the finale.
Brahms’ second symphony is not as emotionally stimulating as his other three works in the same class, but it undoubtedly demonstrated what a pure genius Brahms was, and how mature and sophisticated he had become after his first symphony and other major orchestral works (such as the Haydn Variation).