Johannes Brahms was born in the Free City of Hamburg on May 7, 1833, and died in Vienna on April 3, 1897. He wrote his Double Concerto in the summer of 1887 at Thun, Switzerland. On September 21 and 22 that year at Baden‑Baden, the violinist Joseph Joachim and the cellist Robert Hausmann tried the work with Brahms at the piano, and two days later there was a reading with the Baden‑Baden Spa Orchestra, Brahms conducting. The official premiere took place on October 18, 1887, with the Gürzenich Orchestra, Cologne, again with Joachim and Hausmann, and with Brahms on the podium. The first North American performance was given in Chickering Hall, New York, on January 5, 1889, Theodore Thomas conducting, with Max Bendix and Victor Herbert as soloists. The San Francisco Symphony first played the work in February 1927 with Mishel Piastro and Michel Penha, Alfred Hertz conducting. In the most recent performances, in January 2010, the soloists were violinist Colin Jacobsen and cellist Yo-Yo Ma; Michael Tilson Thomas conducted. The orchestra consists of two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, timpani, and strings. Performance time: about thirty minutes.
If you have ever argued with an old and cherished friend—argued past the point of no return—and then wondered how to build a bridge back to what was, you know what Johannes Brahms was feeling when he conceived his Double Concerto.
Brahms and the violinist Joseph Joachim had been inseparable since 1853, when they met in Hanover while Johannes was on the first concert tour of his career. Actually, he did not yet have a career. Joachim, at twenty-two, was already a man of the world, a musician who, among other accomplishments, had almost single-handedly helped establish the Beethoven Violin Concerto in the repertory when, as a boy of twelve, he played it with Mendelssohn conducting. Brahms was two years the violinist’s junior and had been outside his native Hamburg only for a summer when he was fourteen, spending several weeks in the country to get fresh air and exercise—the kind of thing a city boy with a delicate constitution would do to build up his health and keep from being a target for the characters in Hamburg’s back streets. Hamburg was a rough town. One of the many odd facts of Brahms’s life is that his own rough edges seem to have appeared only after he left home, almost as though he were paying homage to his birthplace. He adopted a gruff and occasionally insulting manner, ignored good grooming, and gained more weight than would have been normal even in a society that valued masculine portliness as a sign of prosperity.
In the years after his meeting with Joachim, Brahms had transformed himself from an unknown provincial pianist into one of Europe’s foremost composers, a position he would never relinquish. His career had been set in motion with Joachim’s letter of introduction to Robert Schumann, who used not only his prestige as an artist but his position as editor of Europe’s most widely read music journal to announce that this young man, Brahms, was someone whose work would change the world. Through the years, the Brahms-Joachim chemistry grew richer and more complex. Brahms sought Joachim’s advice on works-in-progress, especially his great Violin Concerto of 1878, for which Joachim wrote a first-movement cadenza that has become virtually an integral part of the composition. Joachim took part in the premieres of many of Brahms’s chamber works and also conducted his orchestral music. Their friendship was personal and professional, and no doubt they both believed it was unshakeable. Then, in 1883, it ended.
It ended because Joseph Joachim was a jealous man and Brahms was constitutionally incapable of dishonesty. Joachim suspected his wife, Amalie, of being involved romantically with Fritz Simrock, Brahms’s publisher. Brahms realized that his friend had become crazed by the unfortunate confluence of suspicion, passion, and hurt feelings. Convinced of Amalie’s faithfulness, he supported her and told her so in a letter. (“. . . With no thought have I ever acknowledged that your husband might be in the right,” he wrote in a letter that Jan Swafford quotes in his 1997 biography Johannes Brahms. “At this point I perhaps hardly need to say that, even earlier than you did, I became aware of the unfortunate character-trait with which Joachim so inexcusably tortures himself and others. . . . The simplest matter is so exaggerated, so complicated, that one scarcely knows where to begin with it and how to bring it to an end.”) Several years later, when Joachim sued Amalie for divorce, Brahms’s letter was offered at the trial as a character reference and helped the court decide in her favor. Joachim, until then unaware of the letter, was devastated. He broke off relations with Brahms—although, committed artist that he was, he continued to champion his music.
Whether any grudge is worth nursing is an open question. Certainly, Brahms felt a hole in his life. By 1887, four years had passed since he and Joachim had spoken. Brahms was fifty-four. That may not seem so old to us, but this was long before the inflation in human longevity. He had amassed enough wisdom to know that life is preciously short, and to leave it before making peace with someone you loved was not a good way to repay a generous universe. Joachim must have felt the same way. He interpreted Brahms’s offer to join in the premiere of the Double Concerto as the peace offering it was meant to be, and he accepted.
This music, Brahms’s last work for orchestra, has never been among his most popular compositions, yet those who cherish Brahms love it. We love the weight of the orchestral textures, the almost tragic gravity of the opening movement and the delicate musing that intrudes into the rough-hewn conclusion. We love the dialogue between the soloists, who trade phrases, each elaborating on the other’s ideas, borrowing gestures from the orchestra and suggesting others.
A few words about the music: The orchestra opens with a storm of sound and almost immediately falls silent, stopping short as the cello takes sudden command of the stage. As he completes his impassioned statement, the winds enter with a phrase that is the work’s first genuine tune. As it is introduced now, that phrase is gentle and consoling. The violin enters by echoing it. In the course of the movement, the phrase will recur in a form that is sometimes reflective, sometimes assertive. At its reappearances, it acts as a marker that helps us orient ourselves, as does the orchestra’s frequently recurring opening gesture. These are elements of the structural glue that, to our ears, holds things together. The soloists finish their presentations, becoming ever more impassioned, setting the stage for the orchestra’s re-entrance. It starts from where it had begun initially. This time it plunges ahead without interruption. After the opening gestures the music begins to sway broadly and ominously. This shifts abruptly into a deliberate step-like motion that leads to a swirl of noise, and finally to a fountain of triplets that fall, rise, and at their height explode in a shower of notes, leading into a rediscovery of the great tune—proclaimed confidently now—that the winds had sung so gently after the cello’s first solo, and which the violin had echoed. The way Brahms works all this out is breathtaking, and when the orchestra calms down and ends the exposition of ideas, the soloists re-enter with a variant of the work’s very first phrase. This is the sort of logical structure that gave Brahms a reputation as “academic,” but if he labors within rigorously thought-out forms, it is to harness passion, to compress it and make it more explosive as it’s released. This tightly argued movement ends in the kind of straightforward grandeur that Brahms’s audience had first heard from him three years earlier, at the end of the corresponding movement in his Fourth Symphony.
The slow movement opens with a brief announcement, first by horn and then with the winds joining in. The soloists begin what sounds like a lullaby and are accompanied by the orchestral violins and cellos, mirroring what the soloists play. It is almost a little too sweet, so Brahms tempers it. By the song’s second bar, violas and basses enter and, with the other orchestral strings, join in a contrasting figure to what the soloists offer, creating one of those Brahmsian jabs of harmony that makes poignant what might have been cloying. The movement is in three parts: broad song, a contrasting section introduced by a hymn-like passage in the winds, and a return to the song, the orchestra’s strings accompanying, pizzicato. Throughout, the soloists are in the foreground.
Just as Brahms had shown his fondness for Gypsy melodies in the finale of the Violin Concerto he had written for Joachim a decade earlier, his concluding movement here is inspired by folk music from the plains east of Budapest. It is rollicking, in a fierce way. Halfway through, the mood changes abruptly as the orchestral texture thins and the dynamic level drops. The winds exchange questioning ideas that introduce a searching passage for gently glowing orchestral strings, all background to the musing of the soloists. It is over almost as soon as it starts, this slightly absentminded meditation. Forward motion resumes. Brahms indulges in one more quietly reflective passage before it is all over, then shrugs off that mood and pushes through to the end.
Much of Brahms’s late music failed to capture the hearts of its first listeners. Today, our ears are more receptive to Brahms’s sometimes disconcerting fusion of sternness and delicacy. Joseph Joachim himself was not very taken with the Double Concerto, although he eventually came to embrace it. And while he and Brahms resumed contact, each of them protected himself from new hurt by maintaining an emotional distance that had not characterized their friendship in earlier years. Mutual trust would have to remain a memory.
Larry Rothe is the former Publications Editor of the San Francisco Symphony, and author of Music for a City, Music for the World, 100 Years with the San Francisco Symphony, available at the Symphony Store at Davies Symphony Hall and online at sfsymphony.org/store.
More About the Music
Recordings: Itzhak Perlman and Yo-Yo Ma, with Daniel Barenboim conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (Teldec) | David Oistrakh and Mstislav Rostropovich, with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra (EMI Great Recordings of the Century) | Gil Shaham and Jian Wang, with Claudio Abbado conducting the Berlin Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon)
Reading: Brahms,by Malcolm Macdonald, in the Master Musicians series (Oxford) | Johannes Brahms: A Biography, by Jan Swafford (Knopf) | Brahms: His Life and Work, by Karl Geiringer (Da Capo) | Johannes Brahms: Life and Letters, a collection of correspondence translated and edited by Styra Avins (Oxford) | “Encountering Brahms,” by Larry Rothe, in For the Love of Music, a collection of essays by Rothe and Michael Steinberg (Oxford University Press)