Brahms: Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major for Piano and Orchestra, Opus 83

JOHANNES BRAHMS

BORN: May 7, 1833. Hamburg

DIED: April 3, 1897. Vienna

COMPOSED: First sketches were begun in the late spring of 1878. The score was completed at Pressbaum, near Vienna, on July 7, 1881

WORLD PREMIERE:  After a private tryout of the work with Hans von Bülow and the Meiningen Orchestra, Brahms gave the first public performance on November 9, 1881, in Budapest, Alexander Erkel conducting the Orchestra of the National Theater

US PREMIERE:  December 13, 1882. Pianist Rafael Joseffy with the New York Philharmonic, Theodore Thomas conducting

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—December 1928. Carl Friedberg was soloist with Alfred Hertz conducting. MOST RECENT—January 2015. Yefim Bronfman was pianist and Michael Tilson Thomas led

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

DURATION: About 50 mins

THE BACKSTORY “A second one will sound very different,” wrote Brahms to Joseph Joachim, rendering a report on the disastrous reception in Leipzig of his First Piano Concerto. More than twenty years would pass before there was a second one. They were full years. Brahms had settled in Vienna and given up conducting and playing the piano as regular activities and sources of livelihood. Belly and beard date from this time (“clean-shaven they take you for an actor or a priest,” he said). The compositions of the two decades include the variations on themes by Handel, Paganini, and Haydn; the string quartets and piano quartets (three of each), as well as both string sextets, the Piano Quintet, and the Horn Trio; a cello sonata and one for violin; the first two symphonies and the Violin Concerto; and, along with more than a hundred songs and shorter choral pieces, a series of large-scale vocal works including the German Requiem, the Alto Rhapsody, the Song of Destiny, and Nänie. He was resigned to bachelorhood and to never composing an opera.

To the young Brahms, Beethoven had been inspiration and model, but also a source of daunting inhibition. Fully aware of what he was doing and what it meant, Brahms waited until his forties before he sent into the world any string quartets or a first symphony, both being genres peculiarly associated with Beethoven. In sum, the Brahms of the Second Piano Concerto was a master, confident and altogether mature.

The year 1881 began with the first performances of the Academic Festival and Tragic Overtures, and there were professional trips to Holland and Hungary as well as another Italian vacation. In memory of his friend the painter Anselm Feuerbach, Brahms made a setting of Schiller’s Nänie, and then set to work on the sketches that had been accumulating for the Piano Concerto. (By this time, he had established a regular annual pattern. Concentrated compositional work was done during the summers in various Austrian or Swiss villages, each visited for two or three years in a row and then dropped, while winters were the season of sketches, proofreading, and concerts.) On July 7, he reported to his friend Elisabet von Herzogenberg, perhaps his closest musical confidante of those years, that he had finished a “tiny, tiny piano concerto with a tiny, tiny wisp of a scherzo,” though writing on the same day to the pianist Emma Englemann, he is not quite so coy. The measure of Brahms’s sureness about the work is to be found in his singling it out for dedication “to his dear friend and teacher Eduard Marxsen.” Marxsen, to whom Brahms had been sent by his first teacher, Otto Cossel, as a boy of seven, was born in 1806 and had studied with Carl Maria von Bocklet, the pianist who had played in the first performance of Schubert’s E-flat Trio. Brahms’s devotion lasted until the end of Marxsen’s life in 1887. The choice of the B-flat Concerto as occasion for the long-delayed formal tribute to his master is surely significant. Not only was the piano Marxsen’s instrument as well as his own, but Brahms must have felt that he had at last achieved what had eluded him in the wonderful D minor Concerto, namely the perfect fusion of inspirational fire with that encompassing technique whose foundations were laid in those long-ago lessons in Hamburg.

It was the last work Brahms added to his repertory as a pianist, and for someone who had long given up regular practicing to get through it at all is amazing. After the premiere, Brahms took the work on an extensive tour of Germany with Hans von Bülow and the superb Meiningen Orchestra. Leipzig resisted once again, but elsewhere the reception was triumphant. People tended to find the first movement harder to grasp than the rest, and almost everywhere a new relationship between piano and orchestra was noted, phrases like “symphony with piano obbligato” being much bandied about. With respect to the latter question, it is mainly that Brahms knew the concertos of Mozart and Beethoven better than his critics and was prepared to draw more imaginative and far-reaching conclusions from the subtle solo-orchestral relationship propounded in those masterpieces of the classical style.

THE MUSIC After a horn call that seems to come from afar, the whole range of the solo’s capabilities is established. The piano enters with rhythmically cunning comment on the theme sung by the horn. This is poetic and reticent, though also quietly assertive. When the woodwinds and then the strings continue in this lyric vein, the piano responds with a long solo passage that silences the orchestra. This cadenza, massive and almost violent, then demonstrates that its “real” function is to introduce, as dramatically as possible, an expansive and absolutely formal orchestral exposition. Perhaps the greatest moment of this magisterial movement, certainly the most mysterious and original, is the soft dawning of the recapitulation. The horn-call and its extensions in the piano are now gently embedded in a continuous flowing texture. When all this occurs, you remember the piano’s earlier eruption into the cadenza, and the contrast now of the entirely lyrical continuation is the more poignant for that memory. One tends to think of this concerto as essentially declamatory and as the quintessential blockbuster, but the expression mark that occurs more often than any other is dolce.

In April 1878, Brahms had made what was to be the first of nine journeys to Italy and Sicily. His companion was another bearded and overweight North German who had settled in Vienna, Theodor Billroth, an accomplished and knowledgeable amateur musician, and by profession a surgeon, a field in which he was even more unambiguously a master than Brahms was in his. Brahms returned elated and full of energy. His chief task for that summer was to complete his Violin Concerto for Joseph Joachim. He planned to include a scherzo in that work but dropped the idea at Joachim’s suggestion. He had, however, made sketches for such a movement after his return from the South, and he retrieved them three years later when they became the basis of the new piano concerto’s second movement.

Beethoven had to answer tiresome questions about why there were only two movements in his last piano sonata, and now Brahms was constantly asked to explain the presence of his “extra” scherzo. He told Billroth that the first movement appeared to him “too simple [and that] he required something strongly passionate before the equally simple Andante.” The answer half convinces. Simplicity is not the issue as much as urgency and speed. Long-range harmonic strategy, particularly with respect to the Andante to come, must have had a lot to do with Brahms’s decision. The contrast, in any event, is welcome, and the movement goes brilliantly.

The first and second movements end in ways meant to produce the ovations they got at their early performances. From here on, Brahms reduces the scale of his utterance, trumpets and drums falling silent for the remainder of the concerto. The Andante begins with a long and famous cello solo (five years later Brahms found another beautiful continuation from the same melodic germ in the song “Immer leiser wird mein Schlummer”). The cello, like its oboe counterpart in the Adagio of the Violin Concerto, becomes increasingly and ever more subtly enmeshed in its surroundings (and thus less obviously soloistic). The piano does not undertake to compete with the cello as a singer of that kind of song. Its own melodies stand on either side of that style, being more embellished or more skeletal. (Charles Rosen once remarked that this is the slow movement that Rachmaninoff tried all his life to write.)

The finale moves gently in that not-quite-fast gait so characteristic of Brahms. A touch of Gypsy music passes now and again, and the end occurs without much ado.—Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s Program Annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.