The first bars of this symphony may betray already the setting of its creation and the mood of the composer: When Johannes Brahms mulled the first ideas of his Symphony No. 2 in D Major (op. 73) in June 1877, he had just started a summer vacation on the Wörthersee, a lovely region of Austria, close to the Slovenian border. The introduction led by the winds, followed by the strings evokes trees basking in the wind – something I would associate with Brahm’s need for serenity and peace.
When that vacation far from the music business in Vienna came to an end, Brahms was done with the symphony. His friend Clara Schumann noted in September: “Brahms is in a good mood, very much delighted by his summer vacation, and he has a symphony in D major ready, at least in his head, and he has written down the first movement already.” During the composition, he played parts of the work to friends on the piano. By 20 October, Brahms had the score ready, and on 30 December 1877 the symphony was performed for the first time in Vienna.
I love that meandering theme in the first movement, contrasted by a joyful descending scale. Bliss! What I like with Brahms is the prominent role he gives to the brass. I love that family of instruments and I must confess, the first girl I ever was in love, was part of a brass band. She played the saxophone and just loved to hear and see her in concerts. Hence my predilection for the brass. One of my fantasies is to be able to play the bugle and to play a few funny notes each time I feel good. Can you imagine the started looks I would be entitled to?
But back to Brahms. The researcher Robert Pascall writes that Brahms always hesitated about the use of brass instruments, especially in the lower register. Perhaps this caution explains how perfectly it always played out once he had decided on when and how to use these instruments. The reception of the symphony after its premiere was enthusiastic. The fellow composer Otto Dessoff said in a very private confession: “Some things are so beautiful that one can no longer think about which genre they belong too, they represent beauty as such, with no residue of earthly origin.”
The much feared and sometimes despised music critic Eduard Hanslick wrote in the “Neue Freie Presse” in January 1878: “Brahms new symphony radiates healthy freshness and clarity […] It clearly demonstrates, albeit not to everybody, that yes it is possible to write symphonies after Beethoven, even symphonies of the traditional form, built on the previously laid foundations.” Brahms must have been proud, seeing himself presented as a true heir of Beethoven. And I must confess, I do not listen often enough to Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 or to his symphonies as such for that matter.
The Symphony no.2 in D Major has been recorded by the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig under Riccardo Chailly.