We are returning this week to our series on the symphonies of Johannes Brahms. This week we will hear his second symphony, performed by Kurt Masur and the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig.
Brahms composed this symphony in less than a year, which is astonishing given that the first symphony took fifteen years to complete. It seems that Brahms gained confidence after publishing his first symphony, perhaps because it finally freed him from the shadow of Beethoven.
The symphony begins very simply. The cellos carry the first three notes (D, C sharp, D), and the French horns lay a melody over this foundation. Throughout the course of the symphony, Brahms expands on these three notes in a variety of ways. Listen for the many ways he uses this miniature motif (hint: it gets recycled quite often in the winds and brass). The cellos also open the second movement, but this time the theme is darker and more complex. The third movement, much like many of his violin and cello sonatas, departs completely from the somber tones of the earlier movements and juxtaposes a solo oboe line with cheerful pizzicato in the strings. The fourth movement combines the dark atmosphere of the second movement with the energy of the third.