Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 in D Major
After Beethoven wrote nine symphonies, between 1800-1824, it was more difficult for composers to be taken seriously in the genre, to simply dash off another one, knowing that comparisons were inevitable.
Some composers, such as Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner, went off in their own directions, breaking from traditional forms and structures of the classical symphony.
But others, including Brahms, thought of themselves more as continuing and developing the tradition, and were inspired by Beethoven’s great achievement.
It turns out that Brahms need not have worried quite so much. When his Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68 appeared, it was a great success, and I think he breathed a sigh of relief. Johannes Brahms struggled some 15 years to complete his First Symphony in 1876, but then a second one followed only a little over a year later.
Whereas Brahms’ First Symphony opens in a minor key, with an intensely dramatic gesture, his Second Symphony seems to inhabit a different, much more relaxed emotional world. Indeed, his Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 73, which is in the more sunny key of D major, was written during a summer vacation in southern Austria, in 1877.
It is full of wonderful melodies and often evokes a pastoral mood. There certainly are moments of melancholy and serious emotion — Brahms was, after all, a Romantic composer of the second half of the 19th century. But overall, a positive feeling prevails, especially in the upbeat finale.
Two more great symphonies followed (and all four appeared in a span of about ten years), but, I think, his Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 73 is my favorite for its more relaxed mood.
Here is Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 performed by the Berliner Philharmoniker, in 2008. Sir Simon Rattle conducts.