The Clinton Symphony Orchestra will be performing tonight, September 22, at 7:30pm at Sterling High School. See our website, https://ClintonSymphony.org for more information about the concert. The CSO will be performing Brahms Symphony No. 2 as part of the concert; please enjoy the following program notes by William Driver.
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 73
Brahms was a man of uncommonly sharp wit, but self-deprecating toward his own compositions relative to the works of those great German composers who preceded him—Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. Since Robert Schumann had so lavishly praised him at the outset of his career, Brahms knew he was the designated heir-apparent of the classical tradition of German symphonic music embodied in the scores of Ludwig van Beethoven. But the idea of competing with a ghost was almost too much for the composer. He labored for two decades to produce a symphony worthy enough to compare favorably to those of the Master. As he himself said, “I’ll never get a symphony written. You’ve no conception of what it’s like to hear a giant’s footsteps marching behind you.”
Brahms was 43 years old when he completed his first of four symphonies. The gestation period had been long, but the public received the result with great anticipation and applause. The Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 68, premiered in 1876; it was hailed by some as proof that Brahms had indeed arrived as the rightful successor to Beethoven. Conductor Hans von Bülow greeted the symphony as “Beethoven’s Tenth,” an assessment seconded by the noted Viennese music critic Eduard Hanslick, who went on to add that the work was “one of the most individual and magnificent works of the symphonic literature.” High praise indeed for a composer who had so feared the inevitable comparison to the Master himself.
In the Beethoven manner, Brahms quickly followed the dark, tumultuous First Symphony with a companion, a contrasting symphony of a brighter hue. The Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 73, was composed in 1877 at a sunny summer retreat in the Austrian Alps. The locale obviously served Brahms’ spirit well, for he produced an uncommonly optimistic work. However, the sardonic Brahms could not forego a joke to his publisher. “The new symphony is so melancholy that you won’t be able to stand it. I have never before written anything so sad and mournful. The score will have to be published with a black border.” To the contrary, “This [symphony] is as happy as Brahms gets,” in the words of one conductor. It is a bright, joyfully bucolic work, dubbed by Hanslick as Brahms’ “Pastorale” symphony.
The Symphony No. 2 in D major premiered in Vienna on December 30, 1877, with Hans Richter conducting. One of the most renowned conductors of the day, Richter would also premiere Brahms’ Third Symphony six years later. Viennese audiences were pleased with the new symphony, which quickly assumed a place of prominence among Brahms’ works. The composer, ever caustic, alleged that the Viennese liked the work so much because two of the symphony’s four movements were written in waltz-time.