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Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Brahms second symphony might be the most honest and sincere music ever been written. It is joyful as it is full of angst, it is fast when it is slow, it is chamber when it is huge. Something about this symphony always touched me and brought me to think about some small episodes in the symphony, when put together in a more narrative way, they could reveal something about us. The symphony opens with an immediate question or enigma: the cello and bases play a 3/4 bar motive and set on a low A as a pond base line. above it the horns are playing what to become the first theme of the symphony and in a way also its lite-motive. The horns are playing a motive that is harmonized in a perfect D major tonality, only that together with the Base line - A - this motive is somehow not so stabile as it seems. In D major scale, the A is what we call the Dominant which is normally the contrast to the tonic scale, only that here Brahms is putting them together, contemporary so that the D major motive is already confronted with its Dominant. This is a very special approach for the first bars of a symphony, very unique and very personal. Brahms is creating a very pastoral atmosphere using a very tensed musical component. How does he do that? this is real magic, on the analyst paper it is supposed to be a very tensed moment and yet it sound like a pastoral theme. Another small thing, this kind of harmony is usually used in the end of a piece when the composer wants to emphasize the dominant chord, and to create the last tension to be resolved with the final Tonic chord (a cadence move), and yet here Brhams opens the piece with it which create both a great challenge to him as a composer and also smiles towards the music analysts.

The second movement starts with an upbeat, the melody has its heavy weight on the forth beat of the bar (and not on the 1st or 3rd as more often) which is a classic Brahms melodic-rythmic approach, but one also needs to put it in the frame of our symphony. This melody is exactly the opposite of the first theme of the first movement: while the first was a horn melody all based on intervals (D-F-A-D) this second movement’s melody is all based on a scale going down. In early music esthetics, there is a balanced melody esthetic which basically means that a melody should be balanced in itself, so if there is a jump lets say A to F the continuation of the melody should be a scale going down from F towards A so the Jump is somehow “balanced” with steps. (think about the famous opening of Mozart symphony no.40 and see how it works perfectly) This is naturally only an idealistic idea, although most of the music even until today is practically based on this ideas. Brahms is doing something even more interesting, he Balances the First movement interval themes with the Second movement steps-walking scale themes. The balance is happening in a very big or macro level and not only in the inside of a specific melody. This is rather beautiful as Brahms’ need for balance is magically heard in a large scale which brings our ears into a sublime moment when it happens: After a very interval-like first movement, our ears immediately get a going down scales and somehow fulfill or fill in the open intervals left in our mind after the first movement. By that Brahms is showing us his very long breath towards balance, while most of us need a short term relaxing Brahms is teaching us that a big conflict can only be solved after long time or as my Mother puts it: “what brains cannot do, time does”.

In the third movement, Brahms is using our relaxed and balanced ears in order to play with the rhythm itself. After a very unique interval-composing first movement and a very big scale-steps second movement we arrive to what could appear as the most “normal” movement of the symphony. A beautiful 3/4 melody in the woodwinds, harmonized and orchestrated in very expressive and pastoral way. All true, beside the fact that in this movement Brahms is also doing something that before him has never being done, he is doing rhythmic variations changing the hole rythmic value of the bars: we can find 3/4, 2/4 and even a very “bohemian” 3/8 variation. This rhythmic instability is Brahms’ way to balance this pastoral melodic appearance of this movement with a very windy character of the Rhythm.

Now we arrive to the Forth Movement, where all the action happens. This is a fast, virtuosic movement that opens with a very soft and unusual music in the strings. I used the word music and not melody because it is hardly a melody, it is a long and endless combination of intervals and scales individually composed for each voice, all combined together create a very strange but powerful “rug”. It is almost a “catch me if you can” game, and believe me you will not catch it. This unique opening becomes a great and beautiful fanfare or “victory” music orchestrated masterfully. This movement grows and arrives to several pick moments, ending with great triumph in D major. (D major tonality was later described by Mahler (with his 1st symphony) as the Anguish Major. He said that in the Tonal system the D major tonality holds a certain aguish in it that none of the major scales obtain. He said that we should not misinterpret his first symphony’s ending with a victory fanfare, it is a fake victory. It is the victory of the people who has to somehow maintain a victory in order not to make all the people who paid a personal price as useless victims, the victory of the survivors is doomed to be a very sad one.)

There are two kinds of music (among a lot of other kinds): Linear and un-linear. A famous linear composer is naturally Beethoven while the most un-linear of them all would be Mozart. Another great linear of the past would be Elvis while an un-linear would be the Beatles.  If I try to define that i would say that a linear piece of music, is a one that Time and Form are perfectly Balanced. It is a piece that its meaning or effect happens during time, that time must be part of the game. It is a piece that only by going on in time, second after second, it arrives to its inevitable end, it is a piece with a beginning and an end. A linear piece sits perfectly on time, while an un-linear piece flows on it, sometimes they are synchronized and most of the time not. While Brahms is in most of his music a very linear composer, in this symphony we meet a rather different or unique Brahms. The beginning of the first movement is very un-linear, it is music that does not go anywhere, it has no start and no evident end - it does not use time in order to exist, so is the second movement, but not so much the third, isn’t it?

Proportions or Balance are two very big arguments, especially in the 19th century artistic and philosophic fields. I find it extremely beautiful that by using Balance, Brahms managed to create an anguished-pastoral music. By balancing the inside of the movements with the hole structure of the symphony (between the movements) brings to us a very “human” music. Like us, Music changes ideas and feelings in every second but still manages to “wake up and go to work every day”, The first movement of this symphony could not stay a symphonic picture, it is necessary for it to be a part of a symphony, in order to achieve its goals or existence. Is this a happy symphony or a sad one? i know that this is rather a basic question, but the hole idea of this symphony as I see it is the fact that we cannot answer, and the fact that Brahms achieve that ambiguity using different aspects of Balance and un-Balance are fascinating. There are a lot of pieces of art that are hard to define, but the manipulation that Brahms is doing on the Balance issues are fascinating. If we think about this symphony as an entity of its own, we can suddenly see how human it is, it has its faults, its ambiguity, dualism in mood or time, form that changes all the time. Most of our music describe the human kind or talk about it, but few piece manage to actually become human, to be our friend and not only our mirror.