Symphony Saturday

Brahms’s reputation as a brooding and introspective composer probably seems hard to justify, if the only work of his with which you are familiar is his second symphony. This work, almost unversally considered to be one of the sunniest of his pieces, has many typically Brahmsian moments of solemnity, but they are almost always deployed in service of a more genial outlook. The feeling is almost of a composer, freed of his self-doubts after finally managing to lay the ghost of Beethoven to rest – that vexing ghost who had partially kept the First Symphony from seeing the light of day for over a decade – and bring his own powers to bear. The facts of the work’s composition bear this out: while the First took him fifteen years to write, the Second poured out of him over the course of a single summer.

I don’t have a whole lot to say, analytically, about Brahms’s Second. It’s been one of my very favorite symphonies for years—hell, decades, even. I remember finding a vinyl record of it in the band room in High School and putting it on the record player out of curiosity, and being entranced by the symphony’s opening, which seems mysterious at first but soon clarifies – almost immediately – to an entry into a world of sonic optimism and light. Those opening horn calls, with their question-and-answer nature, eventually building to a wonderfully ethereal moment when the violins begin to sing – this is amazing stuff.

Of particular interest in this entire work are various things Brahms does with rhythm. There are interesting syncopations throughout the symphony, and many places where Brahms shifts things rhythmically just enough that you sometimes lose the feel for where the bar line is and where the actual beat is falling (especially in the third movement, which alternates between charming minuet and energetic scherzo). And if you’re a brass player of any sort, the last movement is for you. I was always disappointed that I never got the opportunity to play that movement, just for its last two minutes alone.

Next week: Brahms’s Third, which is the one I’ve heard the least. I have some homework to do!

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