The summers of 1877-1879 were among the happiest and most carefree in Johannes Brahms’ entire life. With the celebrated premiere of his long-awaited First Symphony in 1876, the 42-year-old had finally jettisoned the monkey that had been on his back since Robert Schumann had publicly declared him Beethoven’s successor in 1853. The pressure to live up to Schumann’s pronouncement had weighed on Brahms for over 20 years, and he had struggled mightily with the public’s expectation that he produce a symphony worthy of following Beethoven’s Ninth. Symphony No. 1 had taken Brahms almost two decades to compose and underwent countless revisions before being released to the public. Ecstatic audiences had declared it well worth the wait, however, and by 1877 Brahms was starting to relax and enjoy his fame, finally beginning to feel comfortable with the praise Schumann had offered 20 years earlier.
Summers were Brahms’ most intense periods of composition, and in 1877 he traveled from Vienna to the lakeside village of Pörtschach am Wörthersee in the Austrian province of Carinthia, with the intent to devote himself entirely to composition. Brahms rented two small rooms in the picturesque village and found the setting ideal, writing to a friend that, “The melodies fly so thick here that you have to be careful not to step on one.” Four months later, he emerged with his bucolic Symphony No. 2 in hand, his creative process finally freed from the weight of public expectation. The work is among the most cheerful and contented he ever wrote, and has continued to delight audiences since its premiere in December of 1877. Brahms returned to Pörtschach the following two summers as well, eventually completing his Violin Concerto, his first violin sonata, numerous songs and piano works, and his second set of Hungarian Dances in the charming seaside village.
Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2 are, in many ways, flipsides of the same coin. Whereas Symphony No. 1 was intense and often stormy, Symphony No. 2 is mostly sunshine and warm breezes, interrupted only occasionally by a passing shower. The first movement opens with the horns and woodwinds gently offering snippets of a theme, almost like the first rays of sunlight peeking through a window. The fragments coalesce into a glorious melody in the strings as nature awakens. A second theme, which resembles the melody we all know as Brahms’ Lullaby, continues the pastoral feeling. A stormier development section ensues where somewhat ominous trombones threaten, before the clouds retreat and the sunshine returns. The movement ends with a jaunty melody played by woodwinds and horns accompanied by pizzicato strings as evening falls.
In the second movement, “Adagio non troppo,” things turn a bit more serious, as the cello section begins with a somewhat dark and disquieting opening phrase, which will then evolve into an expansive, regal melody. Brahms flexes his compositional muscles here, transforming and developing the opening theme and a secondary woodwind melody, leading us through a wide range of moods and emotions before finally landing peacefully.
The third movement takes us back to the country with a simple, original folk tune offered by the oboe. The uncomplicated melody is interrupted with suddenly quicker versions of the tune, featuring off-kilter accents, before eventually returning to its original, graceful form.
The final movement, “Allegro con spirito,” begins surreptitiously with the string section playing a quiet theme, followed by a sudden burst of celebratory joy from the entire orchestra. The movement skips happily forward through a nostalgic second theme and various permutations of the two melodies, eventually leading to one of the most triumphant conclusions Brahms ever wrote. The trombones return auspiciously at the end to join in the party, offering little doubt that Brahms finally felt himself on top of his game and, for a summer at least, on top of the world.