Brahms Symphony No. 2

Life was certainly not easy for composers in the 19th century. Beethoven had turned his hand to three crucial genres — the piano sonata, the string quartet and the symphony — during the transitional period between Classicism and Romanticism. He had stretched the limits of these genres to such an extent that it seemed as if his final compositions had reached the boundaries of what was possible. How were composers to continue? One solution was the invention of new genres, such as the character piece or Charakterstück and the symphonic poem; in these works the form, character and flow of the music was determined by extramusical subjects, such as elements from nature or literature.

Brahms was born during the period in which Berlioz composed his hallucinatory Symphonie fantastique and grew up while Liszt was composing his symphonic poems with literary themes. As an adult Brahms wished to return to pure classical musical forms such as the symphony, but he nonetheless remained a child of his time. The fifteen years that he needed to complete his Symphony No. 1 are proof of how difficult this was for him. The result, however, was a masterpiece of symphonic workmanship that still bore Brahms’s personal stamp and that opened the way to a renewal of the symphonic tradition; it was acclaimed at its premiere as “Beethoven’s Tenth Symphony”.

It seemed as if Brahms had finally found his symphonic voice, for it took him only five months to complete his Symphony No. 2. He composed it in the Austrian village of Pörtschach, a place where, according to one of his letters, ‘… the melodies flourish so luxuriantly that you have to be careful not to trip over them’. Brahms also warned his publisher teasingly that ‘the new symphony is so melancholic that you will not be able to bear it. I have never yet composed anything so sad and heavy: you will have to publish it with black borders’.

After the dramatic and dark tone of the First Symphony, the Second has a lyrical and almost elated character. The symphony was soon nicknamed the Pastoral — another reference to Beethoven.

Translation: Peter Lockwood