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ClassicsOnline Home » BRAHMS: Symphony No. 2 / Serenade No. 2
American Record Guide
Johannes Brahms (1833 - 1897)
Symphony No.2 in D Major, Op. 73
Serenade No.2 in A Major, Op. 16
In 1853 Robert Schumann detected in the young Brahms a man singled out to make articulate an ideal way of the highest expression of our time. Here indeed was the long awaited successor to Beethoven, and Schumann was prepared, like some St. John the Baptist, to declare the fact. The "veiled symphonies in sound" that Schumann had heard were not transformed into real symphonies until relatively late in Brahms' life. Much, after all, had been expected of him, and this may explain in some measure his relative diffidence, his distrust of his own abilities.
Brahms was born in Hamburg in 1833. His father was a musician, a double bass player, and his mother a seamstress some 17 years older than her husband. The family was poor, and as a boy Brahms earned money by playing the piano in dockside taverns for the entertainment of sailors. Nevertheless his talent brought him support, and teaching from Eduard Marxsen, to whom he later dedicated his B flat Piano Concerto, although claiming to have learned nothing from him.
After a period earning a living in Hamburg as a teacher and as a dance saloon pianist, Brahms first emerged as a pianist and as a composer in 1853, when he went on a brief tour with the refugee Hungarian violinist Ede Reményi, later to be appointed solo violinist to Queen Victoria. In Hanover he met the already famous young virtuoso violinist Joseph Joachim and with the latter's introduction visited Liszt in Weimar. The later visit to Schumann in Düsseldorf, again brought about through Joachim, had more far-reaching results. Schumann was soon to suffer a mental break-down, leading to his death in 1856 in an asylum. Brahms became a firm friend of Clara Schumann and remained so until her death in 1896.
The greater part of Brahms' career was to be spent in Vienna, where he finally settled in 1863, after earlier seasonal employment at the small court of Detmold and intermittent periods spent in Hamburg. In Vienna he established a pattern of life that was to continue until his death in 1897. He appeared as a pianist, principally in his own compositions, played with more insight than accuracy, and impressed the public with a series of compositions of strength, originality and technical perfection. Here was a demonstration that, contrary to the view of Wagner or Liszt, there was still much to be said in the traditional forms of music. Beethoven's Ninth Symphony was not the last word. Critics, indeed, hailed Brahms' First Symphony in 1876 as Beethoven's Tenth. Brahms came to occupy a unique position in Vienna, his eccentricities and gruff tactlessness tolerated as Beethoven's had been, his musical achievement unquestioned, except by the fanatical supporters of Wagner.
If Brahms' First Symphony seemed to stem from Beethoven's Ninth, the Second Symphony appears to have its origin in Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony. The critic Eduard Hanslick, the self-appointed champion of Brahms and firm opponent of the 'Wagner-Liszt household", found in the work "Serene cheerfulness, at once manly and gentle, animated alternately by pleased good humour and reflective seriousness". The symphony was started during Brahms' summer holiday at Pörtschach on the Wörthersee in 1877. Brahms' friend, the surgeon Theodor Billroth, playing through the symphony on the piano, found in it all the natural beauty of the place. The work was completed at Lichtenthai, near Baden-Baden, in the autumn, and given its first performance at the end of Decernber by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra under Hans Richter.
The first movement proclaims its mood at the very opening, an air of pastoral serenity, including in its scope a contrapuntal development and a moment or two of Mendelssohn, but never in any way what Brahms had ironically offered his publisher, a work of darker hue, but gently meditative rather than tragic. It leads to a Scherzo of grace and charm, set off by two interruptions in a duple-time Presto. In the veins of the last movement Hanslick diagnosed the blood of Mozart. The music, at times robustly cheerful, is rather more than that, an example of the composer's masterly command of contrapuntal techniques. It maintains, in spite of the occasional cloud, a mood that Hanslick summed up as redolent of "the spring blossoms of the earth".
The Second Serenade in A major, Opus 16, was written during the period that Brahms spent in Detmold, completed in 1859 and given its first public performance in Hamburg in February 1860. It is scored for wind instruments and lower strings, without violins, and was published in the same year. Brahms made a four-hand piano arrangement of the work, a task that gave him considerable delight, as he confided to Joachim, and revised the orchestral score of the Serenade in 1875. The first of the five movements entrusts its first subject to clarinets and bassoons in thirds, the former announcing the second subject, accompanied by plucked strings. A lively G major Scherzo is followed by an A minor Adagio in which Clara Schumann detected a liturgical solemnity, finding in the following Quasi Menuetto movement something of the quality of Haydn. A colourful Rondo brings the Serenade to an end.
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BRAHMS: Symphony No. 2 / Serenade No. 2