Brahms: Symphony no. 2
Benjamin Zander Brahms Symphony No. 2 Concert Talk
“There isn’t a single person on this stage this afternoon who doesn’t absolutely adore Brahms.”
— Benjamin Zander
So then comes Brahms. Well, the other day, I was asking the orchestra because I didn’t know what I was going to say to you. So I said to the orchestra, “Write down on your…” They all have a white sheet of paper on their stand so they can communicate with me. And I said, “Write on your white sheet why you love Brahms.” I didn’t say, “Do you love Brahms?” I said, “Say why you love Brahms,” because everybody loves Brahms. There isn’t a single person on this stage this afternoon who doesn’t absolutely adore Brahms. You get that; is that clear? Everybody loves Brahms, right? That’s not true of Tchaikovsky. It’s not true of Mahler. It’s not true of Brookner. It’s not true of a lot of people. But about Brahms, there’s no question. They all love Brahms. And so I asked them to do that. And I thought I’d share a couple of their responses.
This is from our first flute, Kathy Boyd. “Brahms, such beauty, outbursts of tenderness. Lush, rich melodies that are simple and sing directly to your heart, soul, and emotions. Classical forms and restraints that provide the framework for so much deep, rich feelings and emotions. Tenderness, yearning, and longing. Noble joy, loving, peaceful, regret, sorrow, searching. And his music loves the searching, the journey. The accompaniments are so fertile, surging the music forward all the time. His frequent use of syncopation keeps churning and leading to the next beat. Everything is fraught with intention and expression. It is at once, so personal and also a whole universe of motions and emotions. His music reminds me of reading a great romantic novel or the personal letters of an earlier time. So thoughtful, candid, and sincerely expressing the richness of his and our full range of humanity. Playing and hearing Brahms’ great orchestral works is like going to drink at a deep, rich well that comforts you and restores your spirit. Feeds your soul every time you come there.” Isn’t that beautiful? She plays the flute too. That’s beautiful.
And then there’s our third trombone, rather serious. “There’s absolutely no story in Brahms. As Stravinsky said, ‘The play of musical elements is the thing.’ Everybody gets to have their own story, which is better than being stuck with somebody else’s.” Isn’t that great? I love that. So you just come and invent your own story. It’s wonderful.
Then our first trumpet, wonderful Eric, “Brahms swaddles us in a blanket of parental love, patiently allowing us to express our troubles no matter how insignificant or profound. Through this process, he comforts us, letting us know he understands and brings us back to the unbridled joy of childhood.” Isn’t that beautiful? And then he adds a little caveat, because Brahms didn’t use the valve trumpet; he only used the natural trumpet. So the parts are very, very limited. And so he writes, “Caveat: as every parent disappoints, he did not write for the valve trumpet. So I feel written out of the will.” I love that. I love that.
And then my favorite, “Hi, Ben. Why we love Brahms.” This is Yumi and Norico. We have two Japanese people in the inside first stand and leading the violas. And they wrote together. “We love Brahms because Brahms is like chocolate. Bitter, rich, smooth, sweet, crunchy, creamy. Who doesn’t like chocolate? No one.”
Actually, it’s not true. There are some people who don’t like Brahms. My teacher, Benjamin Briton… When I was a kid, I studied a little bit with Benjamin Briton. He didn’t like Brahms. He hated Brahms. And in fact, he said to me once, “The rot set in with Beethoven.” And anyway, it was his birthday day before yesterday, 100th birthday. So we celebrate him for that.
So then they asked me, “So why do you like Brahms?” Well, so I thought I’d talk a little bit about why I love Brahms. Let’s step back a bit. Mozart, Haydn. Haydn invented the symphony. Haydn and Mozart developed the idea of the symphony. And what they did was they presented the only four areas of life that were considered appropriate for the treatment in a work of art. Nobility in the military, that’s in the first movement. The first theme of the first movement is always a masculine military nobility. Second theme, romantic. Second movement, pastoral. Third movement, the quarterly, the minuet, elegant. And the fourth movement, the rustic life. That was the shape of symphony for Haydn, and then for Mozart.
Then came Beethoven. Now, Beethoven added a moral tone to that, especially in the victory symphonies like the Third Symphony, the Fifth Symphony, the Ninth Symphony. And that was pointing to a better world. That was the idea of Beethoven. Pointing to something, a possibility to live into. That was Beethoven.
And now come the romantics, and they go in all directions. Schumann becomes more intimate, more domestic. Mahler goes into the wildest extremes, including everything in life. Berlioz towards the dramatic. Tompeau and Bruckner towards the church, all these things. But Brahms stayed right in the middle. He made a perfect marriage between the old classical forms and the romantic expression, and he found that perfect way of doing that. He provides the comfort of a solid structure with Mozart and Haydn and Beethoven in the background. That is home. So there’s always a sense in Brahms of where home is. And then he added romantic expression. And there are long lines and gorgeous, gorgeous melodies. There’s a wonderful melody at the beginning of the slow movement, incredibly beautiful cellos.
And on it goes. It still goes on. And still goes on. And still goes on. And then, these endless drawn out melodies, just incredibly beautiful. That you don’t have in Mozart, in Haydn. That’s the romantic voice.
He was also a songwriter. And so, like all the romantic composers, Wolfe and Schubert and Schumann, they all wrote incredibly beautiful songs. And there’s a wonderful moment, a very, very familiar song, which appears in the… I’m looking for the one… yes, this one where it appears a familiar idea.
That’s almost like a Brahms’ Lullaby, isn’t it? It has the same quality as the Brahms’ Lullaby. Just before it, there’s a wonderful moment where the trombones and tuba… this is the only symphony that has trombones and tuba. And all the way through, not just at the end like the First Symphony and the Fourth Symphony, but all the way through right from the beginning, the trombones come and tuba. And there’s this wonderful series of chords. Oh, that’s chocolate. Isn’t that wonderful? That’s deep, dark chocolate. And on those brass instruments, I mean, that’s such a gorgeous, heavenly, wonderful sound. And when the tune comes, you notice that the cellos are above the violas. That’s what gives it that strange and wonderful sound. There’s nothing like that. He’s nodding his head saying, “Wonderful, that’s so beautiful.”
But in the background is still Haydn and the Haydn symphony. For instance, in the last movement, when you get to the last movement, it could almost be a Haydn symphony. Not really, but it has the same kind of joyful energy. On like that. It’s full of humor and playfulness and joy. And even with the shocks of Haydn suddenly comes in fortissimo out of nowhere. And so that’s very Haydn-esque.
And then the third movement has a beautiful courtly quality, almost like a minuet. It’s not called a minuet, but it has the same kind of quality. You almost can feel those courtly gestures in Haydn.
And then in the middle of that movement, it suddenly gets faster. As if there’s a scherzo or fast movement in the middle of it. And then it goes back to the beautiful courtly music. And then again, rather like in Beethoven with the scherzo and trio and scherzo and trio like that. It’s a little bit like that.
So now there’s another reason why I just love Brahms, and that’s the rhythm. The rhythms are fascinating in Brahms. Because in Brahms, ever present is the triplet and the duplet, the three against two. So let’s try it. It’s like that. It’s like that. And you always have to hear the other. Even when the triplet isn’t present, you really want it to be there. That’s what she’s practicing here. And then sometimes it’s four against three. That’s very interesting. So you go… And many, many performers don’t actually care about that. It is too much trouble. And so they fudge it. And we don’t fudge it.
We’ve worked really hard to make sure that the four people are playing fours and the three people are playing threes. And you hear this amazing kind of frisson of rhythm going on all the time in the music that is immensely exciting. And if you think about that a lot during the performance, you’ll have an amazingly rich experience.
The other thing that’s fascinating about Brahms is his intellect. He was probably the smartest musician in Europe. He knew everything. He knew music from the beginning of time, from Palestrina and Monteverdi. Nobody at that time knew anything about those composers except Brahms. And he kept all that in his head. And he had a tremendous influence on the next generation of composers. Schoenberg, Berg, Webern. And this is why I’m going to tell you why it’s absolutely fascinating. Brahms took a single cell of music, think cellular, now. That’s a cell, right? That’s how the piece begins. Just with those three notes. Or if you think of it quickly, basically that’s all it is, just saying D. Now the horns go.
And then, well, it’s actually the same. So it doesn’t count. In other words, so far we’ve got… And now the flutes go… And then also, but that’s the same as before. So it doesn’t count, right? So far we’ve got three cells. And then this cell… Sorry, and then this cell. That’s it. Create a symphony just out of that. Isn’t that amazing? That’s all he uses. That’s all he uses. So you got the cello cell, the horn cell, and the flute cell. That’s all. Now he creates a whole symphony out of that. It’s the most amazing. Let me show you a passage.
Early on in the piece, very early on, you get a roll on the drum, very full of… Ominous roll, the timpani. And now the trombones go… Well, you might not hear it. They’re with the cellos. The base, the tuba goes… That’s that flute cell. Now, the flute and oboe go… Well, obviously that’s cello cell. Then comes the ominous timpani roll. Then again, the trombones and the clarinet and bassoon go… Well, of course you know what that is. And then oboe goes, which is a slow version of the cello cell, and then… a fast version of the cello cell.
Everywhere you look is that cell, one or other of the cells. And that’s just 12 bars of magical music. And when it reaches its destination, the oboes on this… Oh, because we’re home at last. There hasn’t been a D major chord yet. And that’s the first time the piece’s in D major. A sense of.. And if we play it right, and you are tuned in, you’ll go, “Ah.” Same thing when you arrive home after a long day, you go, “Ah, I’m home.” Right? That’s why that is so beautiful.
And hardly has it achieved its goal of D major. Subdominant. You don’t care about subdominant, but it’s just that feeling of, oh, so beautiful, so beautiful. So this is the way… And everywhere you look, everywhere you look, you’ll see these cells. There’s a passage a little earlier, a little later on… Well, of course, that’s obvious. Isn’t that exciting? We musicians really get excited about these things. We just… Because every time you hear the piece, you hear more. You hear, “Oh, there’s another one. Oh, there’s another one. Oh my goodness, I hadn’t thought of that.” It’s a wonderful feeling of real excitement when we… It’s like looking through a microscope. You see things that you’d never dreamt with there.
Then the question comes in, should we do the repeat? Well, it’s a question because we know this music by now, and many of you have heard it many times. And why do we need to do the first repeat?
Well, first of all, he wrote it, which is a good reason to do it. Another reason is that he always did it himself when he conducted. That’s interesting to know. But there’s another reason that I find, which is, first of all, there’s a lot of material to take in, and you’ll hear some of it the first time through, and the second time you’ll hear more, and then you are better prepared for the rest of the piece. But there’s also something else, which is that when you get to the beginning of the development, that’s, in other words, after the repeat, you go into the development and there’s a falling scale, that F major on a… I can’t do… Stupid piano, I can’t even suggest it. But when you get to that moment and the horn comes in… You heard all this. That’s such a wonderful moment that you will appreciate it more for having been deprived of it the first time, because we went back to the beginning. Isn’t that exciting? That’s a great moment.
And what’s so wonderful for me being here with you, this is such an amazing thing, such a unique thing, is that to conduct a piece like this, or to play a piece like this, normally you expect people to be only half aware of what’s going on, if at all. They’re reading their program or thinking about what they’re going to cook for Thanksgiving or whatever. But it’s just amazing to realize that everybody who’s here now is going to be listening for that F major moment in the horn. And that adds to our experience of playing, totally transforms the way that we play. Do you understand that? In fact, it’s just an amazing thing.
So we do the repeat, and of course, the development is all about the cells. You just listen for cells everywhere. Let me tell you about another magical moment. I don’t really have time, but I’m just going to take a moment to tell you. It’s the moment of the recapitulation. And the recapitulation, of course, is where it comes back to the original melody. And what you’ll hear is a falling scale.
Actually, the passage just before it is reeking with cells. It’s just everywhere you look, there’s one of these cells. But I won’t go into that. You’ll hear it. But then you come to this scale, that’s the arrival in D major. The oboes have the horn melody. The violas. You remember that wonderful moment of coming home? That’s what the violas have at that moment. So they’re playing… And they fit perfectly together. Of course, Brahms knew that from the beginning, but he kept it in reserve for the recapitulation. And it’s so magical and so beautiful that you might not even notice that it is the recapitulation, and you won’t maybe realize it until we get to this wonderful moment, which you now know so well of the trombones and the tuba. And you say, “Oh, that’s going to be the second theme. So we must have had the recapitulation.”
Isn’t that wonderful? Anyway, Brahms is so amazing. He’s just simply incredible. The end of the movement has one of the most beautiful horn solos in the entire world. It’s a great, great moment for horn. Horns have a great afternoon actually with this, and there’s lots of stuff in the Bartok as well.
Now, knowing about the cells, when we get to the third movement and you hear… Oh, you say, “Oh, that’s the cello cell.” And when we get to the little scherzo feeling, you say, “Oh, that’s the same theme. That’s the cello cell.” That’s how he composed. And Schoenberg loved that. And all the composers who came afterwards loved that.
So Brahms stands like a colossus at the center of our musical culture with heightened Beethoven and Mozart before him, all the romantics around him, and the moderns in front of him. And he is connected to all of them. And he’s responsible for what had… Even Bartok because they shared a deep love of Hungary and Hungarian music, and also folk music, because Bartok was the greatest collector of folk music. So everywhere you turn, you find Brahms somehow engaged. And that’s what makes Brahms and Bartok also such perfect companions for a concert like this.
It’s worth remembering that Brahms spent 15 to 20, we are not quite sure exactly the number, 15 to 20 years writing his first symphony. It took from beginning to end, 20 years before he finished it. The reason for that was he was overwhelmed by the colossal impact of Beethoven behind him and the nine symphonies, and he didn’t think he was up to the task. And he struggled and struggled and struggled. It took him 20 years to finish that symphony.
After he’d finished it, he took him just one summer to write the second. Isn’t that lovely? And he wrote it in a beautiful place in the summer where he stayed, and he said there were so many melodies you had to avoid stepping on them. He said there were so many melodies lying around, and he used many of them that he’s found there for this symphony. It’s full of beauty, full of joy, full of love, and the ease and joy which permeates this symphony and the whole work. And so I say to you, as they do in the restaurants, enjoy.