JOHANNES BRAHMS began composing his SECOND SYMPHONY in the summer months of 1877 during his vacation in the holiday resort of Pörtschach near Wörthersee in the Austrian Alps. In the autumn he continued to work on the piece in Lichtenthal in Germany and at the end of November the work was completed. In December, Brahms and his friend, composer Ignaz Brüll, played a four-hand piano reduction of the symphony in the private musical parlour of the piano manufacturer Friedrich Ehrbar in Vienna. The premiere performance of the full orchestra version by the Vienna Philharmonic under the direction of the illustrious Hans Richter took place in the hall of the Viennese Music Association (Musikverein) on 30 December 1877. The work was received with acclamations, the influential musical critic Edward Hanslick emphasized in his enthusiastic review that the symphony was pervaded from beginning to end with new thoughts and represents the clearest proof for the viability of pure instrumental music, refuting the ideas of Richard Wagner. At that time the disputes between the two hostile German groups – Leipzig and Weimar – escalated into a war between Wagnerians and Brahmsians, and Brahms, after his settling in Vienna in 1862, turned the city into a centre of Brahmsianism with the serious support of Hanslick’s aesthetical ideas of absolute music, laid down in his famous book Vom Musikalisch-Schönen (“The Beautiful in Music”).
Created just one year after the First symphony, the D Major Second sharply differs from it, not just with the spontaneity of its quick completion (the dramatic C Minor First had to mature for nearly fifteen years.) Because of her pastoral suggestiveness, many have understandably sought a similarity with Beethoven’s Pastoral symphony or even with some of Haydn’s opuses. The composer himself wrote to his publisher Franz Simrock in November 1877 that his new work was “melancholic,” expressing his own inner essence, and he had never before written anything so tragic and delicate. Researcher Friedrich Spitta maintained that the Second Symphony grew from the same root as the First, but in a different direction and that one should consider the two works together if their function as an outlet to the complex profusion of Brahms’ musical thought and sensitivity is to be grasped. Indeed, in this symphony one can already feel the presence of the utterly original individuality of Brahms, emancipated from the shadow of Beethoven and a free interpreter of the classical principles and forms, although filling them with a new, romantic imagery and emotional content. This is also present in the juxtaposition of light and darkness, lyricism and manliness, extroversion and introversion. And the pastoral suggestiveness and contemplative mood of this music with its bucolic beauty made one of the composer’s friends exclaim: „So, it was that beautiful by the Lake Wörther!”.