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On 30 November 1877, the great conductor Hans Richter stood at the podium before the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra for the premiere performance of Brahms’s Symphony No.2.
Brahms’s Symphony No.1, in the brooding key of C minor, had been premiered the year before and was pretty austere in tone. The rich, wistful melodies Brahms had become known for were certainly there, but in rather sombre form.
It’s not surprising, then, that many expected his second attempt at a symphony to inhabit a similar sound-world. Brahms himself stoked such beliefs, writing to his publisher barely a month before the premiere that the work ‘is so melancholy ... you will not be able to bear it. I have never written anything so sad, and the score must come out in mourning’.
Brahms was, quite simply, pulling his publisher’s leg. He knew all too well that his Symphony No.2 was full of warmth, brimming with optimism and overflowing with lush, joyful melodies. The very fact that he felt able to joke about the work suggests a composer who was deeply comfortable in his own skin and perfectly at ease with the music he had created. Not for Brahms the worry of acceptance that cast a shadow over his Symphony No.1; instead, he was evidently very satisfied with his creation. As you listen to the final few bars of the fourth movement, you sense that Brahms felt victorious. He’d waited years to compose symphonies – but the wait was definitely worth it.
Philharmonia Orchestra; Christoph von Dohnányi (conductor). Signum Classics: SIGCD132.
Illustration: Mark Millington