1877: Brahms: Symphony No. 2 in D Major

SUNDAY, January 3, 2021 – 9:36 AM

Symphony No. 2 in D Major, age 44


  • 2 flutes, 2 clarinets,, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons
  • 2 trumpets, 4 horns, 3 trombones, tuba
  • timpani
  • strings

Andrés Orozco-Estrada

Estrada is always good, and this is another high energy performance.

Carlos Kleiber

This is a live performance from more than 20 years ago, and it used to be available on YouTube to watch. But recently the video was taken down, and it’s the best performance I’ve every heard, by a long shot. This is the same performance, but unfortunately there is nothing to see. The video costs a minimum of around $26. It’s famous, popular and hard to find.

1st movement

There is an introduction before the exposition, which is not repeated in many performances. This is a performance decision, and it shortens the length by five minutes. Some apparently think that using the repeat makes the first movement too longThere is a famous melody, 2nd theme, that is linked to the famous “Brahms Lullaby”.

2nd movement

He finishes the last movement on a D major chord, then morphs to F# major, a double morph. From there he goes to B major. The rest is just a tonal adventure, and the form is pretty complicated. But the most important thing is that even though the movement is marked as major, really important parts are in minor and very emotional. There is a great darkness in the middle of peace.

3rd movement

The really neat thing is that he starts the movement G major by double morphing from B major. So now that he’s in the new key of G major he can then use this new key as the IV chord to get back to D major for the final movement. It’s sly, slick and sneaky! This movement in 3/4 is an intermezzo.After the emotion of the 2nd movement, this relaxed and playful. The first section is a bit quicker than moderate. Then there is a middle section – which happens twice – that is marked fast, but not too much. The form is essentially A B A B A.

4th movement

It starts with very quiet strings, then there is a sudden loud attack. This movement is also in sonata form, so the 2nd theme comes in A major. Labels are hard, because you end up saying that “theme B is in A”, and maybe that’s why most people talk about 1st and 2nd themes. Then it’s back to the exposition again, or so it seems, but no – this time it moves right into the development section, always the most interesting part of any movement. There is a slow section, which is unexpected, at the end of the development, then back to the the beginning, including the soft entrance. This time the 2nd theme is also in D major (typical form), but before ending there is another section that sounds almost like a 2nd development section, and that gets really slow at the end. Then it picks up speed again and wraps up with a coda.

Brahms orchestra was not much bigger than that of Mozart or Beethoven, and with no percussion other than timpani. By his time four horns were standard.

His favorite symphony…

It was was composed in the summer of 1877, during a visit to Austria.

His 2nd symphony was his personal favorite, which makes me feel good to know because it is my favorite also.

“Pastoral”? Not really…

Brahms 2nd is often compared to Beethoven’s 6th symphony, labeled “Pastoral”, but this is much darker in parts, although the end is quite upbeat. He wrote this to his publisher on November 22, 1877:

“The new symphony is so melancholy that you will not be able to bear it. I have never written something so sad, so minor: the score must appear in mourning.”

In other words, this symphony is complicated emotionally and in parts quite intimate. But what he wrote was also very misleading. Brahms was known to be rather dry in his humor, probably very much like Rachmaninov.


It had to be postponed because the players were so preoccupied with learning Das Rheingold by Wagner that rehearsal was held back. It was given in Vienna on 30 December 1877 by the Vienna Philharmonic under the direction of Hans Richter and was very successful.

6 thoughts on “1877: Brahms: Symphony No. 2 in D Major

  1. A very beautiful piece. I especially liked the transition between the upbeat and joyous first movement to the suspenseful and melancholy second movement.

  2. I like the way you noted the various movements. Listening is just one click and you are there. My ears do not pick up what you are able to hear. Your comments about each movement indicate what to listen for and are very helpful. This format looks cleaner on the page. The comments afterwards add to the learning experience.

  3. There’s so much music that constantly gets tweeked little by little or in big chunks. Its like when your memory slowly changes things over time, you’ll eventually end up with something different entirely.

  4. I had never realized Beethoven’s effect on other composers, so that Brahms initially would be scared of following those footsteps and leaving his own mark.

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