Brahms: Violin Concerto
Concerto in D major for Violin and Orchestra, Opus 77
BORN: May 7, 1833. Free City of Hamburg
DIED: April 3, 1897. Vienna
COMPOSED: 1878. Brahms started work on the concerto in the summer and finished that fall, although revisions continued into the following year. The first movement cadenza is by Joseph Joachim.
WORLD PREMIERE: January 1, 1879. Joseph Joachim was soloist, with Brahms conducting the Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig.
NORTH AMERICAN PREMIERE: December 6, 1889. Franz Kneisel was soloist, and Arthur Nikisch conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—March 5, 1915. Efrem Zimbalist was soloist, Henry Hadley conducted. MOST RECENT—February 2015. Anne-Sophie Mutter and Ye-Eun Choi were soloists (on different concert dates), Michael Tilson Thomas conducted.
INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings
DURATION: About 40 mins
THE BACKSTORY A year after Brahms’s Violin Concerto was first heard, the University of Breslau awarded the composer an honorary doctorate, naming him a specialist in the art of “serious” music. The U of B could hardly have had this upbeat concerto in mind.
But Brahms was serious, no doubt about it. His Violin Concerto might display a lyricism that sounds spontaneous, but this composer sweated over every bar. For Brahms was hyper-conscious of his place in what he thought of as the great tradition of German music, a tradition that extended back to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and the work of Heinrich Schütz and Johann Sebastian Bach. Together with Mozart and Haydn and Beethoven, they had left a legacy. Brahms absorbed that legacy, but he also felt it as a challenge. If you couldn’t add to the tradition, if you couldn’t carry it forward, why bother? He held himself to his forebears’ exacting standards. To become part of the tradition meant eventually to become an example himself, someone future composers could emulate.
Brahms all but inherited his sense of artistic responsibility. His father, a bass player, violinist, and flutist, was also a purveyor of musical genes. Johannes began piano lessons at seven, and three years later he came under the tutelage of Eduard Marxsen, who had studied with Ignaz Seyfried. Seyfried, a pupil of Mozart’s, had conducted the first performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Another of Brahms’s teachers, Carl Maria von Bocklet, had been a friend of Beethoven and Schubert. Brahms had little choice but to think himself torchbearer of a great lineage.
Long before he understood the meaning of his destination or how he would arrive there, this serious young man set out for it almost by accident. He was twenty when he and a Hungarian violinist, Eduard Reményi, teamed in a brief concert tour, a journey that would change Brahms forever. Reményi encouraged Brahms’s love of the Gypsy style that would color much of his writing. And, during a stopover at Weimar, Brahms met Joseph Joachim, who would become one of the century’s greatest violinists and a friend and confidant. Joachim, only two years older but self-possessed and sophisticated, took the wide-eyed Brahms in hand.
Joachim introduced Brahms to Robert Schumann—the Robert Schumann, composer and, as editor of Europe’s most influential music journal, the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, a man with clout. Schumann took one look at Brahms’s work and decided he had found the next great artist. Writing in the Neue Zeitschrift, he called his discovery “the one . . . chosen to express the most exalted spirit of the times in an ideal manner, one who [sprang] fully armed from the head of Jove. . . . [A] youth at whose cradle the graces and heroes of old stood guard.” “New Paths,” Schumann titled his article.
All this happened in 1853. In the next several years, Brahms produced a piano concerto, a pair of serenades for orchestra, and his monumental German Requiem, yet he poured most of his effort into chamber music and songs. He struggled to get a symphony onto paper, feeling overshadowed by Beethoven’s ghost and refusing to rush things, for he knew he needed the experience to get it right. When at last he delivered, in 1876, his reputation was complete.
Things moved quickly after the Symphony No. 1, a work that conductor Hans von Bülow, who enjoyed some clout of his own, dubbed Beethoven’s Tenth: in other words, the most important symphony to be introduced since the Beethoven Ninth premiered in 1824. Liberated by the composition and reception of his symphony, which had cost him fourteen years of labor, Brahms turned out a second one in four months. And then he envisioned another way of etching his name into marble. He would write a violin concerto.
Composers before and since Beethoven had written violin concertos, but few of those works had taken hold in the concert hall. In fact only Beethoven’s and Mendelssohn’s were acknowledged as masterpieces, and even Beethoven’s had had a hard time getting established. Now Brahms challenged himself anew, determined to add a violin concerto of his own to the repertory. But Brahms was a pianist, and he lacked a good understanding of violins and those who played them, of how a musician could make a violin sing, make it release all it could without needing to pack the bow arm in ice afterward. For counsel, Brahms turned to his friend Joseph Joachim.
When the talk turned to violins, Joachim knew it all. In fact it had been his championship of the Beethoven Violin Concerto that convinced listeners of its merit. He was a virtuoso, and also a composer who had already written two violin concertos of his own. The first Joachim heard of a Brahms concerto came in a letter posted from Pörtschach, an Austrian lakeside resort that delighted the composer with its serenity and natural beauty, and where, in his first stay there the previous summer, he had composed his Second Symphony so quickly. Brahms claimed the place was overrun with melodies. You had to take care, he said, not to step on them.
In violin matters, Brahms expected to lean on his friend, and Joachim expected to be leaned on. They managed some of their collaboration in person but conducted most of their consultation by mail. We can only imagine the pace at which they conferred, and as draft pages rolled back and forth by rail and coach, the frustrations must have been as profuse as Pörtschach’s melodies. Regularly, Brahms would thank Joachim for suggesting revisions, then ignore Joachim’s advice. But Brahms was smart enough to accept many of his friend’s suggestions. Much of what you hear in the concerto is thanks to Joseph Joachim, and not only the famous first-movement cadenza.
Joachim was slated as soloist in the New Year’s Day premiere in Leipzig. Brahms would conduct. A spate of last-minute revisions unhinged the thin-skinned violinist. Brahms, who appeared almost in disguise, having just grown the long beard with which he would forever after be identified, knew that Leipzig had never had much use for his music and stiffened on the podium. Polite applause greeted what must have been a compromised performance. Two weeks later, Viennese concertgoers got their first hearing of the concerto and took it immediately to heart. Still, the concerto established itself slowly. Many puzzled listeners simply could not warm to the music.
THE MUSIC Audiences since have tended to side with Vienna. If Brahms the symphonist is apparent in the concerto’s solid architecture, so is Brahms the song writer. Lyricism dominates the Violin Concerto, as though Brahms had scooped up those Pörtschach melodies. He begins with a phrase that, stripped to its simplest form, is made of five notes, the second rising from the first, the last four falling. Two more groupings of five follow, and the concerto’s first subject is complete. Then comes a swaying variant of the opening gesture, swelling quickly into a full-bodied D major crescendo, growing ever more impassioned, breath coming faster and shorter, until it is stopped: pace and dynamic level relaxing into the lovely second subject, introduced by the winds. Yet a third subject, elegant and waltz-like, will come later. Now, after a neutral transitional passage, tension again rises, this time in jabbing strings. At their peak, they drop away. The soloist enters with dramatic gestures that reveal how much Brahms loved the Gypsy fiddle. The orchestra is subdued, rapt and spellbound as the soloist displays his virtuosity, finishing his first speech with a full reprise of the concerto’s opening phrases.
The long first movement features sequences of turbulent emotion, sometimes interwoven and sometimes quick-cut with dreamy lyricism. Examples of such moments abound. My personal favorite is an orchestral passage. The full ensemble builds a stormy rendition of the opening theme, cadences in a decisive exclamation mark, then suddenly yields to the strings, which luxuriate in the elegant third subject, a graceful, curvaceous ballad of moonlit romance such as you might encounter in a nightclub in times gone by, the words not quite audible at this distance, but sung by Frank Sinatra or Ella Fitzgerald.
The Adagio is justly famous for the great oboe melody at its foundation. As you listen to the oboe sing, listen also to the winds around it, forming the harmonies that create the magically serene atmosphere. When the soloist enters with a variant of the oboe tune, violin and orchestra entwine, giving the lie to the conductor Josef Hellmesberger, who led the Vienna premiere and harrumphed that Brahms had written a concerto not for the violin but against it. Like many bon mots, this one is too cute for its own good.
In the finale, Brahms succumbs to the Gypsy spirit. Of course there’s more to it, for in the midst of the dance comes a poignant songlike interlude, just after the first reprise of the great theme that opens the movement. But in the end, this is not Brahms the serious composer. It’s Brahms the lover of talk, Tokay, and Turkish cigarettes, the man who honed his thoughts while playing with tin soldiers, the man who liked to sit on a bench in the Prater, watching the world go by.
Larry Rothe is author of the SFS history Music for a City, Music for the World and co-author of For the Love of Music. Available at the Symphony Store.
MORE ABOUT THE MUSIC
Recordings: Anne-Sophie Mutter, with Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic or with Kurt Masur and the New York Philharmonic (both on Deutsche Grammophon) | Jascha Heifetz, with Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (RCA Red Seal) | Nathan Milstein, with Anatole Fistoulari conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra (EMI Seraphim) | Henryk Szeryng, with Pierre Monteux and the London Symphony Orchestra (RCA, out of print but worth a search)
Reading: Johannes Brahms, by Jan Swafford (Knopf) | Brahms, by Malcolm MacDonald (Schirmer) | Johannes Brahms: Life and Letters, selected and annotated by Styra Avins; translated by Josef Eisinger and Avins (Oxford University Press) | Brahms: His Life and Work, by Karl Geiringer (Da Capo Press) | “Encountering Brahms,” by Larry Rothe, in For the Love of Music, by Rothe and Michael Steinberg (Oxford University Press)