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Composed: 1877
Length: c. 40 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, and strings

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: August 17, 1923, with Emil Oberhoffer conducting

Brahms composed his Second Symphony during the summer of 1877 at the village of Pörtschach on the Worthersee, a picturesque Austrian lakeside retreat. The other notable work to emerge from this sabbatical was the dark, tortured motet,

“Why Is the Light Given to the Wretched?” Surprisingly, a bit of this darkness lurks beneath the surface of the Symphony as well, something that Brahms explained to an admirer who asked the composer about “the rumbling timpani” and “the gloomy, lugubrious tones of the trombones” in the first movement, especially during its otherwise tranquil close. Brahms provided this explanation, pointing to the connection to the motet:

“I have to confess that I am,” the composer wrote, “a severely melancholic person, that black wings are constantly flapping above us, and that in my output – perhaps not entirely by chance – that symphony [the Second] is followed by a little essay about the great ‘Why.’ If you don’t know this, I will send it to you. It casts the necessary shadow on the serene symphony and perhaps accounts for those timpani and trombones.”

The Symphony opens serenely enough, as Brahms gives horns, winds, and finally strings, a melody that certainly qualifies as serene. This melody grows out of three notes sounded by the basses and cellos, three notes that are the thematic germ for the entire symphony, recurring in various incarnations over the duration  of  the work. The melody is followed by a muffled drum-roll and a three-note dirge from the trombones and tuba – the storm already threatening Brahms’ pastoral idyll.

The second movement opens with one of the most beautiful melodies Brahms ever composed, played by the cellos. The movement is remarkable for its passages of overwhelming despair, made possible by the tonal instability of the cello theme. Brahms plays on this instability, taking full advantage of the movement between major and minor modes – and the con- sequent contrast between repose and turmoil – it allows.

The oboe theme that begins the Allegretto grazioso is a transformation of those first three notes from the first movement, and it forms the basis of the A sections of this A-B-A-B-A movement. The B sections, marked at double the tempo of the Allegretto grazioso, provide a rambunctious rhythmic contrast to the country waltz flavor of the surrounding A sections.

In the sonata-form finale, Brahms with- holds the trombones until the recapitu- lation, when they make their appearance bathed in light, united with the rest of the orchestra in sounding the movement’s ex- ultant theme and then playing the finale’s final chords in their highest register. — John Mangum