Saturday, April 12, 2008

Brahms: Symphony #2

Brahms' First Symphony, which we listened to in February, was reportedly the product of at least 14 years of work (some sources will say two decades), as he felt the heavy burden of attempting to compose a symphony with sufficient "gravitas" in the post-Beethoven era.

In contrast, he wrote his Second Symphony in less than a year.
Bernard Haitink and the Boston Symphony Orchestra
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Brahms: Symphony No. 2
Philips, 1991
It's interesting how a genius like Brahms puts so much pressure on himself writing one symphony that it takes him so many years and so much suffering to get it done. But in the next year, he quickly pounds out another symphony--one that's just as beautiful by the way--without putting any evident pressure on himself at all.

In both symphonies he came up with the goods. But how can the composition of one work be so seemingly effortless while the other needed to be dragged kicking and screaming to completion?

This is yet another aspect of Brahms that's so fascinating to me. You can't help but be encouraged in your own creative efforts when even the great geniuses had seemingly arbitrary struggles and successes when creating their work.

For example, when I'm writing, there are times when some solid work will burst out of me with very little effort. At other times, however, writing can be horribly painstaking. And unfortunately, it's seems totally arbitrary which kind of process I'm going to get on a given day. And of course there are times when my finished product can be so repulsive to me that I too want to burn the works, just like Brahms did.

A few brief listener notes for the Second Symphony:
1) Note how, in general, the Second Symphony seems more spontaneous and less forced than the ponderous and grave First Symphony.

2) Listen for the primary melody repeated throughout the first movement. Does it sound oddly familiar at all--maybe like a well-known children's lullaby? Ha. And they say sampling wasn't invented until the 1980s.

3) The third movement was so apparently so well received at the symphony's premiere performance (in December of 1877) that the orchestra immediately encored it.

4) And if you want to have your spirits massively uplifted in a brief ten minutes or so, have a close listen to the fourth movement.


Tom said...

Thanks for writing about this symphony, which I love to bits. Especially the start of the fourth movement, which, as you say, is worth listening very closely to. I love how the strings glide along smoothly, with the flute weighing in effortlessly, before that wonderful surprise as the whole orchestra bursts into life.

I find it fascinating to compare this to the last movement of Dvorak's 6th, which was written a bit later. The Dvorak starts in exactly the same way - a slick, pacy, gliding D major tune in the lower strings, passed onto the flute, suddenly veering off to A major, before returning to D major with the full orchestra at fortissimo. Both are blissful movements, although I think the Dvorak is very much a tribute to the Brahms.

Daniel Koontz said...

Hi Tom, thanks for your comment.

Funny you should mention it, but Brahms' 6th is in the queue here at 101 CDs! I hope to get to it in the next month or so.


Tom said...

Do you mean Dvorak's 6th? Great - am looking forward to reading it! As I mentioned on another thread, that's my favourite symphony of all time. I'm sure you'll do it justice :-)

Daniel Koontz said...

Ha! Yes. Whoops. Slip of the fingers.

Yep I meant Dvorak's 6th. Thanks for the catch. :)