Mahlerman continues his fortnightly guide to serious music by looking at three great second symphonies…
In the summer of 1802 Ludwig van Beethoven, as was his pleasure, left Vienna for the peace of the countryside, settling in the small hamlet of Heiligenstadt a few miles away. Just 32 years old, with a growing deafness unexplained, he fell into a slough of despondency, producing the now famous Testament reflecting his bleak mood, and going on to set down what amounted to a last will, favouring his two brothers.
What amazes us most about this period in his life is not the self-pity and lamentation that this great genius expresses in the document, but the complete contrast it reveals with the music he was composing at the same time. The Symphony No. 2 in D Major, perhaps the least played of the nine, and certainly the least appreciated, is one of Beethoven’s most beautiful and uplifting creations and, though hardly revolutionary, it does contain some of the footprints that found greater expression in the E flat ‘Eroica’ that followed a couple of years later, closing the door on the 18th Century for ever.
Hector Berlioz, a great writer on, as well as of, music, commented that ‘this symphony is smiling throughout’, going on to add that in the short Scherzo third movement, ‘The composer still believes in immortal glory, in love, in devotion. What abandon in his gaiety! What wit! What sallies!’ Florid language from this French Romantic, but perhaps it will persuade you to lend an ear to the other three movements of this neglected masterpiece.
The shadow of Beethoven fell across the life of Johannes Brahms in such a profound way that he devoted almost twenty years of struggle and anguish creating, and finally delivering his first symphony in 1876 when he was already in his mid-forties, thereafter having to endure the inevitable tag that it received as ‘Beethoven’s Tenth’. Stormy and popular masterpiece that it is, it remains the least successful of the quartet of symphonies that Brahms composed, and he followed it within a year with the beautiful Symphony No. 2 in D Major.
Criticism of the Brahms symphonies usually centers on their lack of strong contrast, and it is true textually and in terms of their modest tempi and easy-going nature. The upside is that the composer’s vivid dramatic sense, and his gift for melody, are concentrated in these four works as perhaps nowhere else in his large output. Not a classicist, nor a romantic, the appeal of Brahms is that of a romantic spirit controlled by a classical intellect. A lifelong bachelor, very little is known of his emotional life – outside composition. He continued a lengthy, platonic, emotional relationship with Robert Schumann’s wife Clara, who championed much of his music. Physically striking as a young man, his good looks quickly gave way to the traditional image we have of him as a portly, bearded grump, hands clasped behind his back, pacing the countryside around Vienna lost in head-composition, his favoured method of creation.
I don’t need much of an excuse to listen to Carlos Kleiber conducting Brahms (or anything else); here he is with the Vienna Philharmonic in 1988, live in the Musikverein playing the final movement of this marvellous work.
Northern Europe has produced a handful of very fine composers over the last 150 years, but just a couple who have an indisputable claim to greatness and, by chance, they were exact contemporaries. The Dane Carl Nielsen was virtually unknown in England until his amazing fifth symphony was performed at the 1950 Edinburgh Festival. The stir created was enormous and now most of his symphonic output is well known to music lovers. But towering above even this great master is the Finn Jean Sibelius [pictured, top]. That a composer of his stature should emerge from a country with a sparse population in the frozen north, makes his domination of symphonic form in the 20th Century more extraordinary still; where did he come from?
His early orchestral suite Karelia and later tone-poem Finlandia became enormously popular, and remain staples of the concert hall today, but they are relatively trivial. His real legacy began with the Tchaikovskian First Symphony and later Violin Concerto, both of which are influenced by the great Russian. But even at this time, in the last couple of years of the 19th Century, the Sibelius ‘voice’ was already formed, and when he produced the Symphony No. 2 in D Major early in 1902, the aroma of Beethoven and Borodin had vanished, to be replaced by the modal sway of Palestrina. The birth of this symphony is, quite naturally, the opening of the first movement, with a distinctive rising, three-note motif. What the composer does with this small idea over the 40 minute span of the symphony convinces me of his genius.
In January of this year the Finnish conductor Paavo Berglund sadly died, aged 82. I was fortunate enough to hear him conduct Shostakovitch, Tchaikovsky and Sibelius, the composer that his name is most often linked with, and I will not quickly forget these performances, often with second-line orchestras. He knew Sibelius, but not well (did anybody?), and had this music in his blood; paired here with the Helsinki Philharmonic in the Allegretto First Movement, we are as close to Sibelius Heaven as makes no difference.
The backdrop is the Sibelius Monument in Sibelius Park, Helsinki, and the curious whistling prelude on the vid is presumably the icy wind blowing through the 600 steel pipes.