Johannes Brahms was born in the Free City of Hamburg on May 7, 1833, and died in Vienna on April 3, 1897. Using some material that goes back to 1854 and was originally intended for other purposes and designs, he completed his Piano Concerto No. 1 early in 1858 but continued to tinker with details of the first movement even after the first performances. With Joseph Joachim conducting the Hanover Court Orchestra, Brahms played a reading rehearsal on March 30, 1858, and gave the first public performance with the same partners on January 22, 1859. The first complete performance in this country was given on November 13, 1875, at a concert of the New York Philharmonic Society conducted by Carl Bergmann with Marietta Falk-Auerbach as soloist. The first San Francisco Symphony performance, in March 1926, featured pianist Harold Bauer under the direction of Alfred Hertz; the most recent performances, in November 2010, featured soloist Yefim Bronfman, with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting. The orchestra consists of two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, timpani, and strings. Performance time: about forty-one minutes.
Reason tells you that every adult you encounter had to have had a childhood, but you surely have met people you cannot imagine having been young. Among composers, Johannes Brahms is one who seems stuck in eternal middle age. He contributed to that image himself, with a beard just this side of gross. You may wonder why I’m dwelling on a composer’s personal appearance instead of his music. It is because we are talking here about a work by someone many of us believe never existed, a Johannes Brahms in his early twenties.
The Piano Concerto No. 1 was born in psycho-turmoil. Between 1854 and 1858, with no Dr. Freud available for consultation, Brahms came to terms with himself by writing this music. Today we might say that he was confronting his oedipal relationship with his surrogate parents, Robert and Clara Schumann. He wouldn’t have known what that meant. He would have thought of himself primarily as a Romantic, as puzzled and frustrated in love as many other young men of his time or any other. What continues to set him apart was his possession of the intellectual and technical means to express his emotions.
In 1853, when Brahms arrived in Düsseldorf to present some of his piano pieces to the great Robert Schumann, he was twenty and trim, with silky light-brown hair that flowed to his shoulders and a clean-shaven face whose bone structure would have enabled him to moonlight as a model, had he been working today. Schumann, then forty-three, was known not only for his music but for his critical writing, which he published in Europe’s foremost music journal, which he also edited, the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik. Every young composer needs a Schumann on his side. To help make this happen, Brahms’s friend Joseph Joachim—only two years Brahms’s senior but far older in experience and already a renowned violinist—had introduced him to the former concertmaster of Schumann’s Düsseldorf orchestra, and this man in turn provided a letter of introduction to Schumann himself. But nothing, not Joachim’s pleading nor Johannes’s looks, would have mattered if Schumann had not been won by this young man’s music. In Brahms he saw the one for whom the contemporary concert hall had been waiting. He told the world as much in his article “New Paths,” written a month after his first meeting with Brahms. The shy young artist from Hamburg was famous, famous and terrified. Overnight, expectations had gone from zero to stratospheric. Others might not have survived the acclaim. Brahms accepted the cup.
Had Schumann lived another twenty years, he would have seen how right he had been in his assessment of his young colleague—assuming Brahms had become the Brahms we know today. And that may not have happened. Because what Brahms would be was shaped by the crisis about to be triggered.
Conflict, they say, is the mother of art, and an artist who fails to encounter conflict in the normal course of things has to invent it himself. Brahms did a little of both. On February 27, 1854, Robert Schumann gave in to the voices he was hearing and attempted to drown himself in the Rhine. He was rescued, declared mentally incompetent, and confined to an asylum, where he died two years later. Throughout that time, Clara was denied the privilege of visiting her husband on the grounds that her presence might be too upsetting. Considering what we know today about the Schumanns’ relationship, nothing could have been worse for Robert. Clara was his muse, his helper, and his friend. And more. Throughout their marriage, they had enjoyed a healthy carnal hunger for each other and indulged it regularly.
Brahms surely knew none of this, nor would he have wanted to, but the evidence of Robert and Clara’s family of seven would have been a constant reminder that Robert Schumann had made for himself the kind of life about which he, Brahms, was and would continue to be conflicted. Robert was a husband and a father. And now he was out of the scene.
While Clara was not able to visit the asylum, Brahms faced no such prohibition. He spent time with his friend, of course, but throughout Schumann’s confinement he was also a constant source of comfort to Clara. Have I said that Clara was among the great piano virtuosos of her day? And a composer in her own right? And able to hold her own in any conversation? Smart? Beautiful? The cards were stacked against Brahms. He couldn’t help but fall in love with her. Yet even with Robert out of the picture, obstacles remained. The first one was moral. Imagine the guilt of being attracted to your friend’s wife, while your friend—your friend/father figure—lay sick in an asylum. Then there was Clara’s age. She was almost fourteen years older. But Brahms’s own mother was seventeen years his father’s senior, so he knew that age gaps could be breached—if one could also overlook the fact that a woman to whom you were drawn was entering her childbearing years when you were born. In the end, perhaps it was all a little too strange—the paternal figure locked away, the mother attracting him with a power more potent than any he had felt before. For as far as we know, no romance developed between Brahms and Clara, although they would remain devoted friends to the end.
Schumann’s death on July 29, 1856, closed a chapter in Brahms’s life, but turmoil continued. Later that year Brahms became romantically involved with a young woman, Agathe von Siebold, and would go so far as to wear an engagement ring before he came to his senses and realized just how terrified he was of making a commitment. When he looked ahead, he saw clearly that music was going to be his first love.
The D minor Piano Concerto was born in the turbulence of these years. It began life as a symphony and became a sonata for two pianos before the composer settled on the form in which we know the work today. He built this music with his typical diligence, working and re-working passages—with much consultation from Joseph Joachim—until he felt certain he had gotten things right. The long gestation of the concerto tells a story in itself.
The audience at the work’s Hamburg premiere early in January 1859 was puzzled, as Jan Swafford points out in his 1997 biography of Brahms. Swafford tells us what the public expected from concertos: “virtuosic brilliance, dazzling cadenzas, not too many minor keys, not too tragic. To the degree that these were the rules, the D minor Concerto violated every one of them.”
Those at the Leipzig premiere a week later reacted as many listeners today do to new works (“You call that music?”), for no concerto they had heard before would have prepared them for such emotional directness and its simultaneous demand for attentive concentration—or for the means Brahms employed to accomplish his ends. The opening gestures, for example, are meant to disturb, a stark jab of sound dominated by timpani, followed immediately by string passages that seem to pull in different directions, as though struggling for air. Things continue in this vein until the lyrical second theme is introduced, a not-too-soothing lullaby, still in the minor mode, but growing ever more reflective, deliberate in pace, and descending toward silence. Reality cannot be denied so easily, and a cataclysmic outburst returns us to the work’s opening gestures, now even stormier than in their first appearance. The cataclysm subsides, and the soloist enters with a waltz-like tune that will lead both to subsequent recollections of the opening and to meditation. This is not happy music, but now a theme in the major mode offers respite in a chorale-like passage for the soloist; and after a short transition in the high winds, the passage is echoed by the strings, burnished to full glow and leading to a rare moment of exaltation in the brass. Reflection follows, both from the soloist and from the brass, pondering its triumphant figure. Then the soloist is newly roused as Brahms begins to dwell upon and develop everything we have heard to this point. Prominent is a wistful waltz-like tune, not something to which you would want to dance, perhaps, as much as something to which, lost in daydream, you might want to sway, conjuring images from what might be or have been. When at last the orchestra reaches a peak of agitation, the soloist enters with the gestures heard at the work’s very outset, as the strings ripped the sonic texture apart. About that opening: Those first gestures are so powerful and impress themselves upon us so forcefully that, if we are not listening with all our attention, we can easily overlook how much of this movement is quiet and reflective, dominated by a strangely wistful sense of the dance, the setting an odd ballroom of your dreams, where you and your unidentifiable partner are the only ones on the floor. This is not the neurotic music it is sometimes made out to be. It is the utterly sane, utterly honest statement of someone who at the age of twenty-five already knew that certain realities could not be changed and therefore had to be accepted. Put bluntly, Brahms, given lemons, made lemonade.
In the quietly impassioned second movement, Brahms respected his audience enough to give them music that invited thoughtful participation in a way that few orchestral adagios had since the slow movement of Beethoven’s Ninth, premiered thirty-five years earlier. This movement could not be more unlike the first in character. “Blessed, who comes in the name of the Lord”: Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini, Brahms wrote above the first theme in his sketch of his Adagio, which he also described to Clara Schumann as a lovely portrait of her. Brahms was no churchgoer, but he had a sense of life’s mystery and wonder, and it is probably not stretching the imagination too far to say that he thought of Clara as a gift from God. As this movement opens, listen to the wind figures that accompany the serene string writing. This is a clue to how Brahms structures accompaniments not simply as decorative devices, but to deepen and intensify his main line of argument.
The finale is confident music, music that wants to emerge into sunlight and that is able to breathe freely at last. Demons are conquered. We are back in the world of dance, but we have left the ballroom of dreams for the theater of the real world. The Leipzig audience hated the concerto and hissed when it was over, as though four years of the composer’s work counted for nothing. Was Brahms hurt? Yes. Did he allow it to stop him? We all know the answer to that.
Larry Rothe, former editor of the San Francisco Symphony’s program book, is author of the SFS history Music for a City, Music for the World and co-author of For the Love of Music. Both books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall and at sfsymphony.org/store.
More About the Music
Recordings: Hélène Grimaud with Andris Nelsons conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon) | Leon Fleisher with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra (Sony Classical Masterworks) | Nelson Freire with Riccardo Chailly and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra (Decca)
Reading: Johannes Brahms: A Biography, by Jan Swafford (Vintage) | Johannes Brahms: Life and Letters, edited by Styra Avins and Josef Eisinger (Oxford University Press) | Brahms, by Malcolm MacDonald (Schirmer Books) | A Brahms Reader, by Michael Musgrave (Yale University Press) | Brahms, His Life and Work, by Karl Geiringer (Da Capo)