Johannes Brahms composed his second symphony during the summer of 1877, only a year after finishing his first. Although close in time, the two symphonies differ greatly in character.
The stormy and dramatic first symphony took Brahms an agonizing 15 years to complete. The warm and lyrical second symphony flowed easily from his pen. As he wrote to Eduard Hanslick, “So many melodies fly about that one must be careful not to step on them.”
Brahms enjoyed teasing friends about the progress of his works with misleading comments, such as the following.
The new symphony, too, is merely a Sinfonie, and I shall not need to play it to you beforehand. You have only to sit down to the piano, put your small feed on the two pedals in turn, and strike the chord of F minor several times in succession, first in the treble, then in the bass (ff and pp), and you will gradually gain a vivid impression of my “latest.”
To another he wrote, “I do not know if I have a pretty symphony; I must inquire of learned persons.” This last comment refers to hostile critics, who promptly pronounced the new symphony disagreeably intellectual, cold-blooded, wearisome, and altogether something to avoid.
Even critics normally favorable to Brahms’ music were disappointed that he had not tried to reproduce the thunder of his first symphony. The audience at the premiere in Vienna had probably not studied the reviews. Not having the benefit of knowing what the learned critics thought, they received the new work enthusiastically.
In a sense, Brahms was correct when he characterized the symphony as a Sinfonie, although the chord of F minor has almost nothing to do with it. On the surface, at least, it is a profusion of pretty melodies, one following on the heels of another.
Although the second movement is pensive, philosophical, and the most “difficult” of the four to comprehend, the symphony as a whole is otherwise almost unrelentingly cheerful and sunny. Beneath the surface, however, is the Brahmsian intellect.
He derived his melodies from a very few germ motives and placed them in a complex contrapuntal web. These two aspects complement each other. The beauty of the melodies keeps the complexity from becoming bewildering. The complexity rescues the melodies from mere surface prettiness.