The Second Symphony, the most cheerful of Brahms' larger compositions, is attractively bucolic in nature. It has often been called his "Pastoral" Symphony, but the implied comparison must not be strained. The D major contains, in fact, better music than Beethoven's Sixth, but is not so well constructed. Also, programmatic effects were foreign to Brahms' Dorian conception of symphonic dignity. The scoring is light and clear. The instrumentation is, for Brahms, unusually transparent---free of the sluggish turgidity that so often clogs the machinery in his other symphonies, and sometimes makes them difficult to follow. The D major Symphony was composed during the summer of 1877, on the shores of the Worthersee, a beautiful Austrian lake, and may have much to do with its spontaneous quality. Two of Brahms' most seductive melodies appear in the first and third movements respectively, and the whole is liberally sprinkled with delights. The entire allegretto enjoys a popularity of its own: it is, after all, much like a theme and variations, and naturally Brahms is at his happiest in it. As a suite of attractive symphonic effects, the D major is not surpassed by Brahms' other symphonies, but even more than the others, it lacks the perfectly achieved cohesiveness that is the hallmark of a true symphony.
Having exercised wise discretion in undertaking his first symphonic effort without precipitation, Brahms proceeded almost immediately, no doubt with greater assurance, to create a companion to it: his Second Symphony, D major, Op.73, was written the following year (1877). This truly beautiful work is almost throughout of a brighter, happier mood than its predecessor; the first and third Movements, especially, are simpler in melodic character, more cordial, spontaneous and engaging, and, in their presentation, less involved and abstruse.
The first Movement (in sonata-allegro form) has no Introduction, but also opens with a Basic Motive (as the First Symphony does) of two measures in the bass, over the final tone of which the principal Theme sets in. This Basic Motive assumes many different rhythmic shapes, and is shifted to other beats in the measure; and thus it pervades the Movement, always tangible though not unduly obstrusive, unifying the whole splendid design in a most admirable manner. The second Codetta is built upon a Ground Motive with Imitation in the upper part, and a curiously syncopated rhythmic accompaniment. The following episodes have become famous for their peculiar beauty: the first sixteen measures of the Development (beginning five measures after the double-bar); the last twenty (or forty, for that matter) before the Recapitulation; the horn passage in the first Section of the Coda---and the rest of the Coda.
The second Movement (Adagio) is of an uncommonly serious romantic character, original in melodic conception, and refined in sentiment throughout. It is also somewhat involved in construction and in the method of its presentation, so that one hearing scarcely suffices for penetrating its profound spiritual purport, and apprehending its very rare and beautiful qualities. The design is First Rondo-form. The Retransition (from the subordinate Theme back into the principal one---signature of two sharps) is unusually elaborate, and exhibits the traits of a "Development;" it also contains an allusion to the Basic Motive of the first Movement.
For the third Movement Brahms has indicated no other title than the tempo-mark Allegretto grazioso, but it resembles the graceful old Minuet, though far more masterly in its formulation, and of greater warmth and charm of contents. Its design is the traditional dance-form, but with two Trios; and these two Trios differ in character radically from that which tradition would lead us to expect, i.e.: instead of being entirely independent of their principal Division in contents, each is a unique Variation of the latter, contrasting in meter and in tempo. The first da capo is abbreviated to its first Phrase, which is repeated. Upon reaching the fourth measure, the period halts there, unexpectedly, and proceeds to spin out that measure as a Ground Motive (eleven measures) up to the cadence before the second Trio. The second da capo is partly transposed, and the modulation back to the original key (in the fourteenth measure) is of supreme value.
In the Finale, Brahms yields to an impulse of unusual vivacity, vigor, and spontaneous gaiety; and the craftsmanship is superb as it is transparent. The joy and abandon in it are inspiring. Of note is the brief Ground Motive which, in the bass, underlies the first Phrase of the principal Theme; also the manner in which the first figure of this Theme is interwoven in the subordinate Theme; further, the adoption of this figure, in widening intervals, for the first Codetta; and the very striking (possibly intentional) similarity of the jolly lilt of the second Codetta, to the first Codetta in the Finale of Haydn's London Symphony.
The design is sonata-allegro, very regular, and splendidly proportioned and balanced, but with this somewhat uncommon feature: The Development begins exactly as the Exposition does, thus depriving the hearer, for a moment, of one of his most necessary bearings. In this restatement of the principal Phrase, the Ground Motive in the bass is carried on to the length of fifteen measures---in augmented form in the last six of these. Of note is the effective transformation of the principal theme into triplet-rhythm in the fourth Section of the Development.