An extraordinary melding of musical heritage and progressive outlook made Brahms an overwhelming presence in the latter half of the 19th century, and beyond. The most recent edition of The New Grove Dictionary describes him as the “successor to Beethoven and Schubert in the larger forms of chamber and orchestral music, to Schubert and Schumann in the miniature forms of piano pieces and songs, and to the Renaissance and Baroque polyphonists in choral music,” adding that he “creatively synthesized the practices of three centuries with folk and dance idioms….” Most of these elements can be discerned in one way or another in the composer’s monumental First Piano Concerto.
The creation of this gigantic work, longer even than Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto, occupied Brahms for at least five years. After beginning a two-piano sonata in 1854, he soon realized that the musical material required orchestral treatment. Following the wise decision to combine piano and orchestra, Brahms recast the opening as the first movement of a piano concerto; the other movements of the sonata were discarded (although one of them reappeared later in the composer’s German Requiem). A jaunty new finale was completed in late 1856, followed by the radiant slow movement, but the composer continued to make adjustments up to and even beyond the first performances of the Concerto in January 1859.
Considering the intensity of the work, it may not be so surprising that a critic wrote of the second performance, in Leipzig, that the Concerto “cannot give pleasure,” lamenting that it contained “the shrillest dissonances and most unpleasant sounds.” Especially when compared with the bucolic rapture of the First and Second Serenades, Op. 11 and Op. 16, which Brahms composed in 1857 and 1858, the Concerto is an uncompromising and awesome piece of work, and it remains so even 150 years later.
The Maestoso first movement opens with a mighty noise: as clarinets, bassoons, timpani, violas, and basses sustain an ominous pedal note, violins and cellos declaim the melody with stabbing accents and menacing trills. Before long the other winds are added to the violent assault, but then an espressivo variant lends an air of melancholy, with the theme eventually rising to an exalted register in the first violins. Another outburst, with horns reinforcing the theme, subsides again to make way for the solo piano, which enters with what must be one of the most understated thematic statements in the entire concerto literature. There is a hushed, hesitant, almost stuttering quality, all the more surprising when we know that this very same solo will soon gather up its courage and challenge the orchestra with its own ferocious statement of those menacing trills. As thematic materials are traded back and forth during the 20-plus minutes of this movement, we can only marvel at how well-suited each element seems, both to the orchestra and to the keyboard.
After the earthly struggles that mark the first movement, the Adagio is, quite literally, a world away. “I am painting a gentle portrait of you,” wrote Brahms of this music to Clara Schumann, whose husband Robert had died in 1856. There is a devotional aspect to the music that most likely reflects the composer’s appreciation of the “ancient” masters (e.g., Palestrina). Clara noted the movement’s “spiritual” quality.
The final rondo is begun by the piano alone, and many commentators have compared the outline of this movement with the finale of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto. The truth, as so often with Brahms, is that any models and forms fade quickly in the bright light of the composer’s personality, so distinctive and so charismatic. Combining the rhythmic vigor which would become a regular feature of his concerto finales with the “learned” style of the Baroque masters and an ample supply of virtuoso passage-work, the music reminds us that Brahms would create his masterful set of Handel Variations in 1861.
Dennis Bade is the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Associate Director of Publications.