Sunday, April 18, 2010

Brahms, the Lullaby & his 2nd Symphony

At his pre-concert talk before Saturday night's performance, Stuart Malina was talking about the similarity between the 2nd Theme Brahms wrote for the first movement of his Symphony No. 2 and the most famous melody Brahms ever wrote – his “Lullaby.” He asked me if I knew anything about this, if Brahms ever publicly explained this, but all I could remember about the song was that it had been written for an old girlfriend of his who had just given birth to her 2nd child. I didn't recall anything about Brahms using it consciously in the symphony.

When I got home, I checked Jan Swafford's biography of Brahms, where he writes about the Lullaby, "...the ingenuous little tune unfolds (so much of Brahms in this) as counterpoint to a lilting Viennese Ländler that Frauenchor visitor Bertha Porubzsky used to sing to him in Hamburg [when Brahms conducted the women's chorus there], when Bertha was young and he loved her, before he let her slip away. In the same way he had worked the old song 'Josef, lieber Josef mein' into the 'Geistliches Wiegenlied' for the Joachims' child. The new 'Wiegenlied' is entirely symbolic then, as Brahms hinted when he sent the song to [her husband] Arthur Faber in July: 'Frau Bertha will realize that I wrote the "Wiegenlied" for her little one. She will find it quite in order... that while she is singing Hans to sleep, a love song is being sung to her.'"

That was in 1868. What Swafford also mentions but without drawing any "conclusions" from the observation is that in the summer of 1877 - when he composed the 2nd Symphony - he spent the first of 3 very happy summers at Pörtschach on Lake Worth (see photograph, left) "near Bertha and Arthur Faber's summer place." This was the couple for whom he'd written the Lullaby 9 years earlier!

Coincidence? Maybe, but it might've been on his mind, again. And while he always complained about the song's popularity, he didn't mind the money it brought in – what he minded was other people "mangling his counterpoint" when they made their own arrangements of it.

So that's one possibility.

And yes, the symphony was composed in four months that summer - unlike the 1st Symphony which he spent 15 years on (there had been another 5-10 years spent on other attempts at getting a symphony started, but 15 years on the music that became the REAL 1st Symphony). That summer, he also wrote "the anguished motet 'Warum ist das Licht gegeben?' Why is the light given to them that toil?" He wrote this after the joyous finale of his 2nd Symphony.

As he'd begun work on the new symphony, Brahms wrote to Elisabeth von Herzogenberg (another ex-girlfriend), "You have only to sit down at the piano, put your small feet on the two pedals in turn, and strike the chord of F Minor several times in succession, first in the treble, then in the bass... and you will gradually gain a vivid impression of my latest." While it's possible that might have been from an earlier draft, it's more likely he was just pulling her little leg.

He also wrote to his publisher about it, adding 'I have never written anything so sad, so minorish. The score must appear with a black border" [like a mourning card announcing a funeral].

The symphony opens in pastoral charm and, except for a few shadows along the way, unfolds in anything but melancholy and mourning. As he wrote to the critic Hanslick about how beautiful Pörtschach was: "The melodies fly so thick here that you have to be careful not to step on one."

Two years later, he wrote to someone who'd criticized his use of the timpani and trombones in the 1st movement, a rather unexpected entrance that concludes the introduction and feels like dark shadows before the real first theme unfolds. Brahms responded that "I would have to confess that I am... a severely melancholic person, that black wings are constantly flapping above us and that in my output - perhaps not entirely by chance - that symphony is followed by a little essay about the great 'Why.' If you don't know this [motet] I will send it to you. ['Warum ist das licht gegeben'] It casts the necessary shadow on the serene symphony and perhaps accounts for those timpani and trombones."

A friend of Brahms' thought in the last movement of the symphony "the gaiety becomes almost violently brilliant and seems stage-managed," like Brahms on a Prater merry-go-round, drinking with friends in a cafe: he threw himself into the gaiety but in the end was mostly show [quoting Swafford].

Of course, if those trombones were shadows on the opening, they certainly had come 'round by those final chords!

But there's also this – written in a letter to a friend in which he mentions that in the first movement (though he doesn't say where) he alluded to a song he'd written earlier that spring, jotting a few words from Heine's poem under "those measures." The poem is "Es liebt sich so lieblich im Lenze" ('It's lovely to be in love in the Springtime') but it's a "lacerating irony [hidden] within charming little verses,” a bitter-sweet evocation: a shepherdess sitting by the river is making daisy-garlands but has no boyfriend to give them to. She falls for a handsome horseman but he rides on out of sight and the poor devastated shepherdess flings her wreath of daisies into the river with the final refrain of the opening line, “It's lovely to be in love in the Springtime.” Sorrowful undertones shadow both this pastoral song and, perhaps not coincidentally, the pastoral symphony he composed that summer.

Brahms had just turned 44 – he wrote to Joachim on the birth of a son (on Brahms' birthday), "One can hardly in the event wish for him the best of all wishes, not to be born at all." Cheerful guy... But that was his frame of mind as he set about writing the 2nd Symphony – perhaps the genesis WAS in melancholy minor chords suitable for black borders...

I'd have to find Heine's poem to see how it might scan against the 2nd theme, but my guess is – the allusion to the lullaby, the vicinity of the couple he'd written it for, the recent birthday wishes for Joachim's newborn son and the Heine poem - very possibly, there are more shadows than we might think?

Another timely coincidence – after finishing the 2nd Symphony, Brahms stopped on his way back to Vienna to visit conductor Hans von Bülow and played over the 1st Symphony for him at the piano. That was when Bülow referred to it as "Beethoven's 10th." Shortly afterward, the conductor, a champion of Brahms', also wrote to a friend using a little phrase that started getting bandied about, about three composers who names all started with B...

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UPDATE: My response to Tim Dixon's comment (below) about the similarity between the opening of Brahms' 2nd Symphony and Stephen Foster's 'Beautiful Dreamer' includes a link that apparently doesn't work in the comment field. Hopefully, it will, here - check out the "Unbegun Symphony" by Peter Schickele: the last movement, which pits the opening of the Brahms 2nd against Foster's 'Beautiful Dreamer' in the flute, begins around 5:30 into the clip. (It seems you can only listen to it once, if it works at all... well, worth trying to find it, any way...)

- Dr. Dick


  1. -Great post, Dick, and it has me excited to hear the symphony again this afternoon!

    One thought, have you ever noticed the similarity between the transitional theme in the first movement to Stephen Foster's "Beautiful Dreamer?" I always assumed there was some kind of connection between the "lullaby" and the "dreamer." The thought occurred to me as I was conducting it for the first time---appropriately enough it was the last symphony I conducted before my wife gave birth to our first child...already I knew sleep would be an issue!

  2. Thanks, Dr. Tim - not sure if Brahms (in 1877) would've known Foster's song (1864) but it's fun to imagine it being played to death by the town orchestra outside Brahms' favorite haunts in Pörtschach and him complaining how he can't get it out of his head. Then, too, do you know Peter Schickele's "Unbegun Symphony"?
    (hope the link works) check out the opening of the last movement, about 5:30 into the clip ;-)