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On Brahms 2

The Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony has asked my to write short letters to our subscribers about the music coming up.  They’re fun to write!  Here’s a short letter about Brahms’s Symphony No. 2, which we’ll be playing in a few weeks.

Brahms wrote of his Second Symphony, “It is so melancholy that 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 joking. It is a pastoral work, written one summer by a beautiful lake. It’s an exhale after the tremendous weight and anxiety of influence Brahms felt following Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with his own First. At times serene, at times jovial, it rarely lingers on the overtly melancholy. But everything Brahms says has many layers of meaning. I love reading over Brahms’s letters to Clara Schumann and others. The close readings of the scores they send each other, the care with which they craft their responses is a lost art today. Often a line is ironic several times over. So I wonder if Brahms was really happy when he wrote this symphony, whether there was some irony within irony here. Brahms lived his life without companionship, only with an endlessly yearning love for Clara Schumann. As he ages his works become increasingly inward, lonely, and final. I don’t think Brahms’s music is possible without sadness. Even the Second Symphony, one of his sunniest works, seems filled at its most beautiful moments with an overwhelming awareness that this beauty will pass. This feeling of temporality saddens the pastoral atmosphere, but this sadness is somehow more real and satisfying to me, happier. So many levels of meaning, whispering like leaves in a summer breeze.