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  • Ian Passmore

Music that doesn't suck, No. 39: Special Birthday Edition!

Today is my fiancee’s birthday, so she chose the piece for this week. And lucky you—it’s a great one!

Dianna and I have been together for more than seven years. She taught orchestra at the college level for a while, and enjoys working with those students. However, she also has a moral/ethical compass that points due north, so the politics of academia eventually led her to pursue her true calling, dog care. She still enjoys working with students occasionally, so we say she’s “semi-retired.” ;)


Out of all the music that has been shared between us, there are probably two major pieces of the repertoire that really stand out, pieces that we’ve each visited and revisited many times: Dvorak’s Eighth Symphony and, our topic for this week, Brahms’s Second Symphony.


Dianna was originally trained as a mathematician…and an organist…and a pianist. She’s smarter than me. Like many pianists—and hell, just musicians in general—Brahms is her favorite composer. While his complete oeuvre is quite large, he only completed four symphonies. And that’s just fine, because each of them is a masterpiece in its own right.


Brahms composed his Second Symphony in the summer of 1877, a far cry from the 21 years it took him to finish his First! The Second Symphony is the most overtly cheerful of Brahms’s symphonies, although Brahms himself once wrote, perhaps jokingly, “[it] 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.”


Some highlights of the piece…


- The first three notes are a germ from which the rest of the symphony grows—its influence can be traced through every movement. The second theme should sound familiar to you…it’s an orchestral take on his earlier Wiegenlied, commonly referred to as “Brahms’s Lullaby.”

- The second, slow movement is my favorite slow movement in all Brahms’s orchestral music. Upon hearing its impassioned opening, I bet you’d never guess it actually starts on an upbeat! :)

- The finale is the most effusive, festive music Brahms ever wrote…with the arguable exception of the Fourth Symphony’s third movement.


The trombones play a prominent role in the first and final movements of the symphony. This is also the only Brahms symphony that utilizes the tuba, and leaves out the contrabassoon. The First, Third, and Fourth Symphonies use the contrabassoon, but no tuba.


Here is the birthday girl’s favorite recording of the Brahms: the Berlin Philharmonic led by Sir Simon Rattle. Enjoy! :)


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