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Variations Of Symphonic Form
In June 1877 Brahms travelled to Carinthia in order to spend the summer months at Portschach on the Wor-thersee. It had become his habit - as compensation for the winter months when he played in public and concerned himself with the printing of his works - to spend the summer in lovely rural surroundings so that he could compose in peace.
The winter of 1876 had been of particular significance for Brahms's creative work: in November his First Symphony had received its first performance in Karlsruhe. He had laboured for 15 years at developing this genre "after Beethoven". The "shadow of the giant" and the confident expectation evoked by Robert Schumann in his essay Neue Bahnen (New paths) of Brahms as the great composer of the future had for a long time constituted insurmountable obstacles. Even while working on the First Symphony he had said to the conductor Hermann Levi: "I shall never compose a symphony." However, the works written in the intervening years had enabled him to handle the orchestra, so that the form became accessible to him; at the age of 43 in the Summer of 1876 he completed his Symphony in C minor on the Isle of Rugen.
The attractions of Portschach were quite different from those of the wild rocky landscape of the island in the Baltic, as Brahms wrote to his friend Theodor Billroth: "Here - here it is delightful indeed, lake, forest, 'up above an arch of blue mountains sparkling white with pure snow'." Or, as he put it in a letter to Eduard Hanslick: "[...] the Worthersee is a virgin landscape, with so many melodies flying about that one must take care not to step on any [...]." In these inspirational surroundings he quickly composed the Second Symphony in D major, which might be called Brahms's "Pastoral", providing with its lambency a total contrast to the dramatic and very serious First Symphony. Its song-like melodies are pervaded by a basically gentle and lyrical quality; nor is there any lack of the sudden changes of mood which are so typical of Brahms. In their simple beauty the themes give the impression of having been written down as a result of spontaneous inspiration. Yet Brahms, with his pronounced feeling for and insistence on form, exploits the abundance of themes to produce a particularly imaginative treatment of sonata form. The "Art of thematic transformation" (Constantin Floros) springs from the very root of Brahms's compositional technique: the variation form. Throughout his life the composer worked on this form and the possibilities which it presented. The first movement of the Second Symphony is the best example of his ability to produce an almost inexhaustible supply of new ideas from the material available. Here Brahms develops five thematic passages which - however contrasting they may be - demonstrate an unmistakeable coherence. The germ is the inconspicuous "kernel motif" -hardly more than a written-out changing note - which appears right at the very beginning in the basses, pervading the whole movement like a motto and holding everything together to the very end in rhythmic transformation, diminution, augmentation and thematic development. The second movement is also distinguished by its wealth of thematic ideas and stands out from other intermezzo-like middle movements by reason of its more substantial sonata form. The Allegretto grazioso is further proof of Brahms's ability to make the musical form his own by changing the relationship between individual sections. Its scherzo character is transferred from the lyrical main sections to the two inserted presto trios, amounting to a reversal of the traditional form. In the treatment of its themes and by virtue of its con brio character, the finale is clearly modelled on the symphonic tradition of the 18th century. Tovey said that it breathes the spirit of Haydn. Theodor Billroth described this symphony, which is so clearly different from the three others, in a letter written to Brahms in December 1877: "I cannot say which movement 1 like best, as I find each one marvellous in its own way. A delightfully happy spirit pervades the whole work and it is all clearly stamped with the seal of perfection and effortless inspiration." Brahms, on the other hand, told some friends and his publisher Simrock that his Second Symphony was a "melancholy" work. Only a day before the first performance, which took place in Vienna on 30th December 1877, he wrote to his friend Elisabet von Herzogenberg: "The musicians here are playing my new one with black ribbon on their sleeves because it sounds so doleful; [the score] will be printed with a black border." These ironic remarks enabled the rational Brahms to hide his emotional attachment to his work, which may have been greater than he was perhaps willing to admit. He was also displaying his reluctance to express views about his own works.
In his determination to present only "finished" works to the public, Brahms usually destroyed all his sketches. All that is known about the origins of the Third Symphony is that he completed it towards the end of his stay in Wiesbaden in the Summer of 1883. Written six years later than the Second Symphony, the Third marks the transition to Brahms's late period. With its balanced construction it corresponds more closely than any of Brahms's other symphonies to the ideal of cyclical symphonic form. Its unity becomes particularly apparent at the end of the work; fading away in the decrescendo, the final bars of the first movement are quoted almost note for note. The movements are also closely linked by the clear thematic relationships between the last movement and the two middle movements. Thus the theme of the transition in the finale corresponds to the subsidiary idea in the second movement. But the Andante and the Poco allegretto are also closely related, constituting a third section between the pillars of the outer movements, as noted by Eduard Hanslick in his review of the first performance: "[...] both move in a leisurely tempo and on an intermediate level of emotion, allowing tenderness and grace to unfold quietly." The richly diverse harmony is another distinctive feature of this symphony, which is also reflected in constant switches between major and minor. Brahms's musical language seems more spiritual in the Third Symphony than even in the Second, with some elements of reflection, even of resignation. But in spite of their differences, these works had one thing in common: the public loved them. This is why, after their first performances in Vienna - both conducted by Hans Richter - Brahms insisted on presenting them himself in other cities.
- Brigitte Markuse