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Length: c. 35 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings, solo violin, and solo cello
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: April 9, 1938, with violinist Bronislaw Gimpel, cellist Alexander Borisoff, and Otto Klemperer conducting
Brahms referred to his Double Concerto with words like "funny," "amusing," "folly," and "prank," not descriptions that come to mind while hearing the piece. The Double Concerto is a titanic work, seemingly hewn from musical granite. The passages for orchestra seem imposing and are scored with an almost Spartan severity, and the writing for the soloists is rugged, almost gruff in places. The work is among the final entries in the great repertory of 19th-century concertos stretching back to Beethoven, who himself built on the classical concerto tradition of Mozart. Hardly a "prank."
In fact, the reasons behind the Double Concerto could scarcely be more serious. Brahms had broken with his longtime friend and collaborator, the violinist Joseph Joachim, in 1880. Joachim suspected his wife of having an affair with the composer's publisher Fritz Simrock. But Brahms believed Frau Joachim's protestations of innocence, a position that brought about a split between composer and violinist. Joachim's name comes up in letters Brahms wrote during the Double Concerto's composition, although the two were not yet back on speaking terms.
That the Concerto was an overture to Joachim is confirmed by those around Brahms during the period of its composition. Clara Schumann noted in her journal, "This concerto is a work of reconciliation - Joachim and Brahms have spoken to each other again for the first time in years."
Brahms, Joachim, Clara, and the cellist Robert Hausmann, another artist with whom Brahms had already worked, descended on the resort town of Baden-Baden in September 1887 to rehearse the Concerto. The work premiered in October 1887 in Cologne at the Gürzenich Concerts, with Brahms conducting and Joachim and Hausmann as soloists.
The Double Concerto was warmly, though not rapturously received, and some of Brahms' closest friends were fairly vicious with their criticism. Clara Schumann wrote, again in her journal, that it lacked "the warmth and freshness which are so often found to be in his works," and Theodore Billroth, an amateur musician and friend of the composer, described the Concerto as "tedious and wearisome, a really senile production." But others admired the work, and none more so than Joachim. Brahms gave him the manuscript of the work, offering a hand-written dedication "to him for whom it was written."
Commentators have discussed Brahms' fairly dismissive references to the work as a proactive defense mechanism - a sort of "keep everyone's expectations low and maybe they'll be pleasantly surprised" strategy. His equivocal attitude toward the work and the different opinions it elicited from his friends have meant that the Double Concerto has never quite occupied the kind of place in the repertory as Brahms' other concertante works. But the Double Concerto occupies a unique place in Brahms' output as the only orchestral work he wrote in his leaner late style.
The first movement is among the most formally fascinating Brahms composed. It adheres loosely to the strictures of sonata form (exposition-development-recapitulation), but whenever themes reappear, Brahms varies them somehow, even in the recapitulation. The exposition of themes at the beginning of the movement progresses in a surprising fashion, and the concept of the exposition repeat, a standard feature of 19th-century sonata form and usually a true verbatim repeat, is approached with great freedom by Brahms here. The recapitulation is, like the exposition, a sort of extended double affair, with the return of the first and second themes treated so freely that the signposts indicating the movement's progress from development to recapitulation are blurred. Here, the soloists join the orchestra in the second half of the recapitulation, and Brahms extends his material, especially the second theme, with the soloists each playing the theme (first the violin, then the cello) in a passage marked dolce (sweet) that has to be among the most beautiful Brahms ever put on paper. The coda revisits the severity of the opening theme, with staccato, forte writing for the soloists and orchestra that provides a massive closing.
The ternary form (A-B-A) andante recalls the gentle lyricism of many of Brahms' other orchestral slow movements. A little, two-note introduction, played first by the horns, then by all the winds, prefaces the simple opening melody, which is played by the soloists and the strings, colored by flutes, bassoons, and clarinets. The central section begins with the winds, over a pizzicato string chord.
The sonata-rondo finale begins with a desultory, almost sneaky staccato theme, played first by the cello soloist, and then taken up by the violinist before erupting with surprising vehemence from the full orchestra. The soloists introduce the rich, mellifluous second theme before the first one returns, fragmented and played by the soloists, then by bassoon, oboe, and flute to begin the development (which also functions as the first contrasting episode in the rondo scheme). The strings then introduce new material, a fairly grand, almost imposing theme, played fortissimo. When the first theme returns, marking the recapitulation, which doubles as the final rondo episode, the winds decorate it discreetly. The Concerto concludes with three final, loud chords, a massive and simple gesture that ends a concerto whose austere surface obscures countless musical and formal riches.
- John Mangum is Vice President of Artistic Planning for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.