Brahms SymphonyNo. 2
Symphony No. 96 in D major, "Miracle"

"I am Salomon from London and I have come to fetch you. Tomorrow we shall conclude an agreement."

With these blunt words to Joseph Haydn in December 1790, Johann Peter Salomon triggered one of the most fruitful artistic partnerships in history, and gained for himself a measure of immortality as well. German by birth, Salomon had earned a respectable reputation as a violinist, but he made his career as a concert producer in London, a sort of Sol Hurok of the late eighteenth century. He was not a man to bypass a promising opportunity. Upon learning of the death of Prince Nikolaus Esterházy, he hastened to Vienna to approach Haydn, realizing that the Prince's passing would likely mean a major shift in Haydn's responsibilities to the noble Austro-Hungarian family.

And so proved to be the case. Events transpired rapidly: the composer arrived in London for the first time on 2 January 1791, barely three months after Prince Nikolaus had died. Salomon did well by Haydn, who produced six symphonies during that first London trip alone. The Symphony No. 96 in D-major was the first of the series to be composed, and was almost certainly the first to be performed.

London's musical life in the 1780s and 1790s was extremely lively, with concerts or operas taking place almost every night. Such performances were closely entwined with the city's social life, and it was not long before the local press began to cover Haydn's activities. Public interest in the Austrian composer escalated considerably after the premiere of the D-major symphony (probably on 11 March, 1791). Haydn wrote to Luigia Polzelli in Vienna describing the performance:

At the first concert of Mr. Salomon I created a furor with a new Symphony and they had to repeat the Adagio: this had never before occurred in London. Imagine what it means to hear such a thing from an Englishman's lips!

Thereafter London embraced the visitor from the continent, which is perhaps the true "miracle" of this symphony, because of the wondrous musical legacy that ensued. The work takes its nickname from an apocryphal story about a chandelier dropping from the ceiling of the concert hall, immediately after the audience, moved and thrilled by the performance, had rushed forward to the stage to congratulate the composer and the musicians. Because of their forward surge, no one was injured by the accident, a fortuitous circumstance regarded as a miracle at the time. According to Haydn's biographer Vernon Gotwals, the chandelier actually fell during the finale of Symphony No.102, introduced during the 1794/95 season; thus, the legend has been proved incorrect. Still, the sobriquet has stuck to this symphony.

By the 1790s, Haydn's habit of beginning his symphonies with a slow introduction was standardized; this one opens with a stately Adagio in triple meter. He follows with a sprightly Allegro, also in 3/4, which awards the first theme to the second violins rather than the firsts. Haydn's style is quasi-concertante, with important solo lines for virtually all the instruments (solo violin has a significant role), and strong emphasis on a chamber atmosphere.

His slow movement is light in tone, sometimes barely suppressing its mirth, as if the composer had some secret practical joke up his sleeve. (In contrast, the Minuet is rather sedate.) The second movement is also distinguished by some cadenza-like passages for small ensemble, emphasizing the concerto grosso style introduced in the first movement. Haydn concludes his joyous symphony with an exuberant rondo of a strong military cast; it is the sole movement in the symphony in duple rather than triple meter.

The score calls for pairs of flutes, oboes, bassoons, horns, and trumpets; timpani, and strings.

Suite No. 4 in G major, Op. 61, "Mozartiana"

Tchaikovsky composed four orchestral suites during the 10 years from 1878 to 1887. As a group, they have neither the musical weight nor the dramatic import of the six symphonies. Rather, they are an analog for large ensemble to the piano salon miniatures of which he composed so many. Yet the suites bear the unmistakable imprint of Tchaikovsky's genius for orchestration, each glittering with unexpectedly bright coloristic details that reward the listener.

The fourth suite was completed during the summer of 1887 when Tchaikovsky was on holiday in the Caucasus with his brothers Modest and Anatoly. Subtitled "Mozartiana" by the composer, Op.61 differs from the earlier orchestral suites in that it is not original musical material. Tchaikovsky explained in a published note at the head of the score:

A large number of Mozart's most admirable small works are, incomprehensibly, very little known not only to the public, but even to the majority of musicians. The author of this Suite, Mozartiana, wished to give a new impulse to the performance of those little masterpieces, whose succinct form contains some incomparable beauties.

In this regard, Tchaikovsky's intent was oddly prescient of Igor Stravinsky's in The Fairy's Kiss, in which Stravinsky endeavored to pay homage to Tchaikovsky's own lesser known salon works, orchestrating them into a fine ballet.

Mozartiana consists of four movements, each of which adapts a specific Mozart composition. The first two are largely straightforward transcriptions of piano pieces: the Gigue, K.574 (obviously more Baroque than classic in its roots) and the Minuet, K.355. The third movement, which Tchaikovsky subtitles "Preghiera" [Prayer], is a free arrangement of Franz Liszt's transcription of the Ave Verum Corpus, K.618. As such, it is twice removed from Mozart, a distance emphasized by the addition of a harp in the orchestration.

The Suite concludes with a set of variations loosely based on Mozart's own piano variations, K.455 on a theme from Gluck's opera La rencontre imprévu. Here the scoring incorporates cymbals and glockenspiel, lending a whimsical -- and decidedly un-Mozartean -- flavor to the music. While the Suite remains a good faith effort on Tchaikovsky's part to pay tribute to the composer he revered above all others, it tells us more about him and his era than it does about Mozart. At its premiere, Mozartiana was a huge success, earning praise and applause from critics and audiences and thus serving to reinforce the composer's flagging confidence. As a curiosity piece, it has value simply because of its authorship. Thanks to Tchaikovsky's native gift for instrumental color, the arrangements rise above the level of mere salon music.

Tchaikovsky scored the Suite for woodwinds in pairs, four horns, two trumpets, timpani, harp, cymbals, glockenspiel and strings.

Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 73

Alpine paradise

"So many melodies fly about that one must be careful not to tread on them." So wrote Johannes Brahms to friends in Vienna during the summer of 1877. His rapturous observation was prompted by the beautiful mountain village of Pörtschach am Wörthersee in the province of Carinthia. Brahms enjoyed Pörtschach enough to return for two additional summers, producing along the way three major works of strikingly similar spirit: the D major Symphony, Op.73 (1877), the D major Violin Concerto, Op.77 (1878) and the G major Violin Sonata, Op.79 (1879).

Of the three, the Second Symphony is perhaps the most amazing, not because it is better than the other two, but because it is so different from what preceded it. Brahms labored over his First Symphony for two decades. Always his own most severe critic, he waited until he had reworked musical material, forging it into a form that met his own high standards. Consequently, the First Symphony reflects musical ideas -- and internal struggle -- dating back as early as 1854.

Floodgates opened: composing with ease

By contrast, the Second Symphony unfolded naturally and rapidly, ready for its premiere barely more than a year on the heels of its predecessor. It is as if the floodgates were opened; the next symphony poured out of him with fluid grace. Once Brahms had cleared the hurdle of that first major orchestral work, ideas streamed forth from him, and such ideas! "It is all rippling streams, blue sky, sunshine and cool green shadows. How beautiful it must be at Pörtschach!" exclaimed the composer's friend Theodor Billroth, upon hearing the new symphony played through at the piano.

Brahms’ ‘Pastoral’ Symphony

Often called ‘Brahms' Pastoral,’ Op.73 overflows with the dappled sunlight and exquisite natural beauty of the Austrian alps. It is nearly devoid of the tension and tragic struggle that permeate the First Symphony. Eduard Hanslick, the powerful Viennese critic, spoke of its "untroubled charm." Yet the symphony is not without urban sophistication. Michael Musgrave has written: "The Second Symphony opens in the world of the symphonic waltz, as made familiar in Vienna by Johann Strauss, Jr." Confounding us further, Brahms expands his orchestra to include trombones and bass tuba in three of the four movements. Their brassy presence is belied by the tenderness and intimacy of his music. Brahms' biographer Karl Geiringer has noted:

The whole atmosphere of this work is reflected in its instrumentation, which is more delicate, more translucent, and definitely brighter than that of the First Symphony, the pastoral flutes, oboes, and clarinets receiving particularly prominent parts.

The seductive power of waltzes

The first movement is in gentle, swaying triple time. While not unprecedented in a symphonic first movement (Mozart's #39, Haydn’s Miracle and Surprise Symphonies, and Beethoven's "Eroica" are the most famous examples), triple time was still unusual in Brahms' day. Far from apologizing for it, he emphasized it with a frankly waltz-like second subject, closely related to his beloved Lullaby. Though it has dramatic moments, notably a fugal development section, the first movement firmly establishes an aura of benign geniality that prevails for most of the symphony. The coda includes a dreamy horn solo, one of those delicious scoring details that rewards careful listening.

Spotlight on cellos and low brass

The rich key of B major provides the backdrop for a rare hint of darkness in this predominantly sunny symphony. Brahms' slow movement, Adagio non troppo, begins with a luscious, expressive cello melody. Though the celli relinquish the melody at its second statement, they reclaim it several times, and retain a high profile throughout the movement. Surprisingly, Brahms emphasizes the darker sound of the lower instruments by retaining timpani, trombones and bass tuba in his scoring; frequently they remain silent in slow movements.

A transitional passage switches meter from 4/4 to 12/8, ushering in a contrasting middle section in B minor. Clouds temporarily obliterate the sunshine before a poignant oboe solo reintroduces the cello melody of the beginning.

The Schubert connection

Timpani and low brass disappear in the Allegretto grazioso. More an intermezzo than a scherzo, this gentle movement rocks gracefully between major and minor modes, recalling similar ambivalence in Schubert. Its two intervening trio sections (one in 2/4, the other in 3/8), have a sprightlier character, but still draw their melodic motives from the Allegretto. Both trios include some fine woodwind passages.

Contrapuntal tour de force

Brahms the contrapuntalist is in rare form in the finale, applying virtually every technique in the imitative book. After a bright start for strings alone, he takes maximum advantage of the episodes in this sonata-rondo for ingenious contrapuntal feats. Canon and inversion, augmentation and diminution, fugato: all are incorporated with consummate skill. The sunshine of the first movement is definitively restored, with a healthy dash of Haydnesque exuberance thrown in for good measure.

Brahms' Second Symphony is scored for flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons in pairs; 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, bass tuba, timpani and strings.

© Laurie Shulman, 2019