‘The new symphony 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 wrote to his publisher Fritz Simrock shortly before the Symphony No. 2 was due to receive its first performance on 30 December 1877. However, at the premi?re given under the baton of Hans Richter, it transpired that the composer was only joking and to Simrock’s immense relief the work proved to be unexpectedly light in tone (at least in comparison with Brahms’s other compositions) and met with considerable success.
The ‘melancholic’ tone Brahms was ironically referring to is in fact only evident in the second movement, while the first is best described as ‘pastorale’ – all the more so, given that Brahms was spending his summer holiday in the beautiful Carinthian mountains when he wrote the symphony. The third movementcan be regarded as a somewhat awkward joke. The breezy oboe theme becomes, by means of a change of metre and character, its own caricature. The finale begins with a barely audible string theme, but the subdued energy explodes eventually, transporting the listener towards one of the least melancholic ending of the Brahmsian oeuvre.