Brahms' 2nd Symphony: A Slice of Musical Trifle


Brahms. Oh, Brahms. Brahmsy Brahms. Johannes. What do I say about you, then, eh?

Not beating about the bush at all - I strongly disliked Brahms for most of musical life. I thought him boring, and once described him as a disappointing, watery brownie. So much promise, so little satisfaction. I know others may agree with me there, while others may be going WHAT ARE YOU ON ABOUT HOW CAN YOU SAY THAT??

Yeah, I know. Well - the good news here is that I am a recent Brahms convert because of this very symphony - having played it over Easter. Now, when I play a piece that I don't initially like, I do normally end up liking it in the end, usually within a day or so. This took a lot longer - it took almost a week. But by the time I got to the concert I was very sad not to be able to play it again.

I think what happened was that by playing it I began to understand just how many layers of cleverness were put into the music in ways that other composers don't do. For a start - the instrumentation is very clever and well done. Playing the cello in this symphony feels like all the notes are expertly placed and written just for the cello - and resonance between instrumental groups is really a thing to behold in a live performance. I was initially listening out for just one 'tune', but as I got more used to the piece I began to pick out how the melodies interwove amongst instruments in a very clever and almost beautiful way in and of itself.

And yes, the melodies, and the structure of them - on all levels - are entirely genius. Every note feels like it should be there and was considered at great length, and once it's played like that the symphony becomes a joy to play. The relationships between the melodies, countermelodies and accompaniments, when focused on, brings the piece together in such a coherent and honestly extremely satisfying way. The motifs and ideas are manipulated in all sorts of interesting ways and paying attention to this, for me, is always a good way to get into listening to a piece. This piece truly is a whole formed of component parts which comes together beautiful. It's layer upon layer of unique musical complexity which come together to form something very satisfying indeed. A trifle, if you will.

Now, for those of you who love Brahms, you probably know all of this and more. And for those of you that don't, you probably don't know what I'm raving about - but I hope this blog has shown you that sometimes, first impressions of a piece aren't necessarily the lasting ones (this is now one of my all time favourite symphonies) no matter how long that might take.

I'll keep my musings on the musical specifics quite brief:
Movement 1 balances two melodies, the longer, cello melody, and the melody which is passed around higher instruments. The intersection of these is a beautiful as the melody itself. We then move onto a very familiar sounding tune - one that was written by Brahms for piano and voice elsewhere. I'm fairly sure everybody will have heard it at some point in their lives.

Movement 2 showcases firstly Brahms' incredible melodic skill as well as his immense rhythmic trickery. It might be hard to find the beat here if you don't know where it is - and indeed the entire symphony is permeated by rhythmic trickery - hemiolas, rhythms that sound like they're on the beat but aren't, phrases of obscure lengths, shifting rhythmic patterns to alter the listeners' perceptions. All thought through with incredible detail, and not something you're really thinking about as you are listening - but interesting nonetheless.

Movement 3 is perhaps the most famous, and its fast pace perhaps makes it the best to showcases the way in which Brahms uses both instrumentation and tonality to colour the music. Listen out for how the two ideas compliment each other was well as how just a few notes from a certain instrument dotted here and there can really decorate the music in exceptionally intricate and beautiful ways.

Finally, the fourth movement again, especially towards the end, plays with rhythm quite a bit, and this is a very complex but also rather fun movement. What helped me initially with this one picking one instrument line to really focus on each time I heard it, building up a picture for me which allowed greater appreciation of the whole eventually.

Yes, this is quite heady stuff, but there is definitely surface beauty here too which I can very much appreciate now. All I can say is, trifling though it may have seemed, I'm glad I gave Brahms a chance.