Concerto No. 1 in D minor for Piano and Orchestra, Opus 15

Johannes Brahms
BORN: May 7, 1833. Free City of Hamburg
DIED: April 3, 1897. Vienna

COMPOSED: Using some material that goes back to 1854, Brahms completed his Piano Concerto No. 1 early in 1858 but continued to tinker with details of the first movement even after the first performances

WORLD PREMIERE: 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

US PREMIERE:  November 13, 1875. Marietta Falk-Auerbach was soloist

at a concert of the New York Philharmonic Society, conducted by Carl Bergmann

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—March 1926. Harold Bauer was soloist, Alfred Hertz conducted. MOST RECENT—February 2014. Hélène Grimaud was soloist, Lionel Bringuier conducted

INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings

DURATION: About 41 mins

THE BACKSTORY  Johannes Brahms seems stuck in middle age. Just look at him: the bulk, the baggy suits, that beard always in need of a trim. Why dwell on a composer’s personal appearance? Because we’re talking here about a work by someone many of us believe never existed, a Johannes Brahms in his early twenties, clean-shaven and lean, well-tailored, drop-dead handsome.

In 1853, this young man arrived in Düsseldorf to present some of his piano pieces to the great Robert Schumann. Schumann, then forty-three and known not just for his music but for his critical writing, edited Europe’s foremost music journal, the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik. In Brahms, Schumann saw the composer music lovers had been waiting for. He told the world as much in his article “New Paths,” written a month after meeting Brahms. Overnight, the shy young artist from Hamburg was famous, famous and terrified. Yesterday, no one knew him. Today, everyone expected great things. Others might not have survived the acclaim. Brahms accepted the challenge.

Had Schumann lived another twenty years, he would have seen how right he had been about his young colleague—assuming Brahms had become the Brahms we know today. And that may not have happened. Because Brahms 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 has to invent it. Brahms did a little of both. On February 27, 1854, Robert Schumann attempted to stop the demon voices he was hearing and leapt into the Rhine. He was rescued, declared mentally incompetent, and confined to an asylum, where he died two years later. Throughout that time, Schumann’s wife, Clara, was denied visiting privileges. The doctors believed her presence might prove too upsetting. From what we know about the Schumanns’ relationship, nothing could have been worse for Robert. Clara was his muse, his helper, his friend.

The evidence of Robert and Clara’s family of seven would have been a constant reminder not just of their intimacies, but that Robert Schumann lived the kind of life Brahms found both tempting and forbidding. Robert, husband and father, seemed to play the role of the good bourgeois. As much as Brahms longed for domestic happiness, he thought of it as a trap.

Although Clara was barred from the asylum, Brahms faced no such prohibition. He spent time with his friend, and 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? Able to hold her own in conversation? Beautiful? The cards were stacked against Brahms. He couldn’t help but fall in love with her. Yet even with Robert at a safe distance, 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 and locked away. 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. In the end, perhaps it was all a little too strange—the paternal figure confined to a cell, the mother drawing him with a power more potent than any he had felt before. Did their mutual attraction ignite a romance? All we know is that Brahms and Clara remained devoted to each other, 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 went so far as to wear an engagement ring before he came to his senses and realized just how terrified he was of commitment. When he looked ahead, he saw clearly that music was going to remain his first love.

The D minor Piano Concerto is a record of these turbulent years. It began life as a symphony and became a sonata for two pianos before settling into its final form. Brahms built this music with his typical diligence, working and re-working passages until he felt certain he had things right.

The audience at the 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.”

THE MUSIC  Those at the Leipzig premiere a week later reacted as many listeners today do to new works that upset expectations. No concerto they had heard before would have prepared them for such emotional directness, so great a demand for concentration. The opening gestures, for example, are meant to disturb, a stark jab of sound dominated by timpani, followed 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. The cataclysm subsides, and the soloist enters with a waltz-like tune that will lead both to recollections of the opening and to meditation. Now a theme in the major mode offers respite in a chorale-like passage for the soloist. This is echoed by the strings, burnished to full glow and leading to a rare moment of exaltation in the brass. Reflection follows, the brass pondering its triumphant figure. Then the soloist begins to dwell on and develop everything heard to this point. When at last the orchestra reaches a peak of agitation, the soloist enters with the gestures heard at the work’s outset, as the strings ripped apart the sonic texture. Aside from those super-powered first gestures, so much of this movement is quiet and reflective, dominated by a dreamlike sense of the dance, 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 honest statement of someone who at the age of twenty-five already knew that certain realities cannot be changed.

The quietly impassioned second movement could not be more unlike the first. “Blessed, who comes in the name of the Lord”: Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini, Brahms wrote above his sketch of this Adagio, which he also described to Clara Schumann as a lovely portrait of her. It may be a stretch—though not by far—to say that Brahms believed Clara possessed all the attributes of someone bestowed upon the world by a divinity. 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 argument.

The confident finale emerges into sunlight. Specters vanish. 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? You know the answer to that.

—Larry Rothe

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.

(May 2018)