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Brahms Rebuilds a Bridge

May 3, 2013

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. 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