Length: 40 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings, and solo violin
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: March 28, 1929, with soloist Albert Spalding, Georg Schnéevoigt conducting
Out of a catalogue that lists over 120 works by Johannes Brahms, only thirteen are purely orchestral. That he did not complete his first symphony until the age of 43 (1876) can be attributed to several factors, including his keen sense of the history of music and his place in it, and the specter of Beethoven’s accomplishments in the immediate past. For Brahms, then, the symphony was the genre by which a composer could claim a right to the great tradition, analogous to the sonnet as the true test of a poet’s technical mettle. Add to this his penchant for severe self-criticism (though he was equally self-assured of his compositional judgments), and his strict, methodical working out and revision of musical ideas, and it is astonishing that he approached the symphony and other large orchestral forms at all.
It was the composer Robert Schumann (1810-1856) who, after hearing Brahms play his two piano sonatas at their first meeting in 1853, realized that Brahms’ grasp of large-scale form would eventually lead him to the use of symphonic forms as the medium to best realize the depth of his ideas. Schumann referred to the sonatas as “veiled symphonies” and, in his characteristically metaphorical manner, wished that the younger composer would “…plunge his magic wand into the forces of chorus and orchestra” to reveal “…even more wonderful glimpses into the invisible world”.
By 1856, Brahms had begun to expand his activities to include choral conducting, arrangements of German folksongs for women’s and mixed voices, and sacred music for choirs, thus partially fulfilling Schumann’s expectations. However, it was with his German Requiem (1868) and Alto Rhapsody (1869), both of which are supported by full orchestral accompaniment, that he established his reputation in Europe. His first great success as a composer of purely orchestral music was in 1873 with his Variations on a Theme of Joseph Haydn, a full 20 years after Schumann’s pronouncement. In the next 14 years, between 1873 and 1887, Brahms composed all of his remaining orchestral works, including his Violin Concerto in D, Op. 77.
It is not known when Brahms began work on his Violin Concerto, but we do know that he finished his first draft during the summer of 1878 at Portschach in southern Austria. He then sent the solo violin part to his long time friend, the composer, conductor, virtuoso violinist, and dedicatee of the concerto, Joseph Joachim. Brahms had for years consulted with him on various compositions, seeking his criticisms and learned opinions. In the note accompanying the violin part, Brahms sought that Joachim should “…correct it, not sparing the quality of the composition and that if you thought it not worth scoring, that you should say so. I shall be satisfied if you will mark those parts which are difficult, awkward, or impossible to play”.
Joachim found the solo to contain “…a lot of really good violin music”. He premiered the work on New Year’s Day, 1879 in Leipzig.
The orchestral exposition of the first movement presents the first theme in the low strings and bassoons, succeeded by a series of chromatically inflected linking passages. Following the orchestral exposition, the violin enters not in D major, but in D minor in an extended quasi-cadenza passage over a sustained tone in the timpani and cellos, as melodic fragments are heard echoing throughout the orchestra. The violin then goes on to introduce a new, lyrical theme that it shares with the orchestra. In the cadenza of the recapitulation, Brahms calls upon the soloist to extemporize, making it the last great concerto in history in which the soloist is asked to do so. [Joachim’s own cadenza is played at these performances.]
The Adagio, in F major, presents a pastoral theme in a setting of woodwinds led by the oboe. The violin enters later, ornamenting the theme over a string accompaniment. The calm ambience gives way to a stormy middle section which eventually winds its way back to the calm of the pastoral setting.
The finale, with its abundance of melodic double-stop writing for the violin, is reminiscent of a kind of gypsy-inspired music. But the great lyricism and rhythmic drive of the themes far transcends any sentiment inferred by such a statement, and the many moods depicted throughout the movement give to this pure orchestral music the universal value of hard-earned human artistic expression.
— Composer and writer Steven Lacoste, who serves as the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Archivist, holds a Ph.D. from UCLA and lectures on music theory at California State University at Long Beach.
(Notes for the May 2002 Brahms & Mahler concert:)
Amazingly, there is a recording of Brahms playing Brahms. Through a horrendous roar of surface noise, we can hear dimly a voice introducing the recording (a common practice in the earliest days of Thomas Edison's cylinder recording devices) followed by the thumps and bangs that we can just make out as the great man pounding away at the piano. It is a freely improvised excerpt from his First Hungarian Dance. The entire recording lasts only a minute.
The recording was made in the home of Richard and Maria Fellinger. Brahms had grown close to the Viennese family late in life and often spent holidays with them. The spoken introduction, now thought to be the voice of Theo Wange-mann (an Edison employee) rather than that of Brahms himself, mentions Fellinger and "Dr. Brahms, Johannes Brahms" before the playing commences. And then, for something less than 60 seconds, a portal is opened on an age we have been conditioned to think of as remote, but which technology has miraculously, if imperfectly, preserved.
It was December of 1889. Just weeks earlier and less than 200 miles away in Budapest, Gustav Mahler had conducted the premiere of his own First Symphony.
In December of the following year, an encounter: "On the evening before a concert, for which Brahms had come, the opera Don Giovanni was being staged. Mahler's friends in the elite of the musical and other fields in Budapest had free access to a box.… Two professors at the Academy of Music had drawn Brahms' attention to Mahler's Don Giovanni and suggested going to the performance.
"'I wouldn't dream of it,' the Master snapped at them. 'No one can do Don Giovanni right for me, I enjoy it much better from the score. I've never heard a good Don Giovanni yet. We'd be better off going to the beer-hall.'
"There was no contradicting that. In the evening both gentlemen were so able to arrange it that they went past the Opera House towards seven o'clock. 'It will probably be too early. The beer won't have been going long. Come in here for just half an hour.'
"'All right then', growled the Master. 'Is there a sofa in the box?'
"'Then it's all right. I'll sleep through it.'
"They took their seats, the friends at the balustrade of the box, Brahms on the sofa. After the overture they heard from the rear of the box a strange grunting sound. The unarticulated utterance of approbation was followed by many others in a paroxysm of admiration which made the hearts of the gentlemen at the balustrade beat faster.
"'Quite excellent, tremendous - he's a deuce of a fellow!' Brahms leapt from his sofa, and when the act was finished he hurried onto the stage with his friends and embraced the frail little man to whom he owed the finest Don Giovanni of his life.
"...Brahms remembered the name of Gustav Mahler and he and Hanslick gave an influential testimony in favor of this artist which may have been partly if not wholly decisive in his appointment [at the Vienna State Opera]."
The event was recounted in the Neues Wiener Journal some years after the fact. Still, the article is both entertaining and informative for what it intentionally and unintentionally tells us. Primarily, it perpetuates the received image of a grumpy but revered Brahms, the leading figure in Viennese musical circles. We've seen the photographs (another kind of technological gift) of the man in grand later life - the enormous beard, expansive waist, piercing gaze. Brahms the cigar smoker. Brahms the iconic composer. But it reminds us too that the audiences in the decades framing the end of the 19th century regarded Gustav Mahler primarily as a conductor, with a particular emphasis on his work in the opera house.
Importantly, it is the generally approving tone and the mention of Hanslick which hints at the significant musical controversy of the time. Two schools of thought and their fight for supremacy were polarizing the musical capitals of Europe. Eduard Hanslick (1825-1904) was the most influential critic in Vienna, and his advocacy of Brahms' music was as powerful as his distaste for the work of Wagner. Hanslick prized above all a perfection of musical form, a view taken to represent the old conservative musical camp and its suspicion of emotional expressiveness for its own sake. The opposition, rallying behind the innovations of Wagner and the writings of such eloquent and obstinate critics as George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) in England, cast themselves as the vanguard of the modern. It was to the latter that Mahler found himself drawn. In 1896 he wrote:
"We stand now - of this I am certain - at the great crossroads that divides forever the diverging paths of symphonic and dramatic music so easily visible to the eye of him who is clear about the direction of music…. Indeed, Wagner made the means of expression of symphonic music his own, just as now, the symphonist fully qualified in, and completely conscious of, his medium, will take over the wealth of expression that music gained through Wagner's efforts. In this sense, all the arts, yes, even art and nature, hang together."
Of course, for us, more than a hundred years later, it is almost impossible to conceive of the music of Brahms as lacking in expressiveness. In fact, it is the emotional expressiveness rather than the structural ingenuity or formal rigor of his music which draws packed houses at concerts, concerts which welcome the music of Mahler as well. We must remember, however, that during the last decade of the 19th century this would have been unimaginable. Although Brahms personally seemed able to remain above the fracas for the most part, his early on-stage embrace of a young Mahler would have seemed a striking irony to his contemporaries.
It should also be noted that the Brahms portrayed in the pictures taken toward the end of his life, the familiar gray-bearded Brahms, was not the Brahms of the time of the great Violin Concerto. His birth in 1833 and his death in 1897 neatly framed the invention of the daguerreotype and the early days of motion pictures. As a consequence, we also have photographs of the young Brahms at 20, beardless with long hair swept back. However, the majority of work on the concerto was done in 1878, around the very time when Brahms began to grow his famous beard. It is, then, the work of the great prime of his middle years, years which also saw the creation of the soaringly melodious Second Symphony.
Brahms had spent the summer in Pörtschach in southern Austria and seemed to find inspiration in the sunny climate. By August he had begun to discuss his new concerto with his friend of over 20 years, the internationally famous Hungarian violinist Joseph Joachim (1831-1907). When the two first met in 1853, Joachim was already widely known as a performer and Brahms, as the newcomer to the musical scene, often sought the violinist's advice regarding his latest compositions. Work on the concerto was, therefore, a true collaboration. Brahms turned to Joachim for matters regarding violin technique and Joachim offered suggestions to sustain the highest level of virtuosic effectiveness.
In its original form, the concerto had four movements, but before Joachim could meet with the composer, Brahms had determined that the middle movements were failures. "I have written a feeble adagio instead," he wrote. The two men exchanged ideas by post until nearly the end of the year, at which time a trial performance was arranged. Joachim, who could legitimately have claimed to have co-written the entire violin part, would also compose the first-movement cadenza. Even now, it is this cadenza which has set the standard for subsequent efforts by such notables as Kreisler and Heifetz, and it is the cadenza Hilary Hahn prefers to play.
The first performance was given by Brahms and Joachim in Leipzig on New Year's Day 1879. Astonishingly, this most tuneful of concertos was initially thought of as being somewhat severe. The often-repeated quote which has been variously attributed to the famous conductor Hans von Bülow and to Josef Hellmesberger, who conducted the Viennese premiere a few weeks later, suggested that while Bruch had written a concerto for the violin, Brahms had written one against it. The almost symphonic scale of the concerto was difficult for audiences and critics to absorb readily. (Decades later, the violinist Bronislaw Huberman would trump that famous line by saying that the Brahms concerto is not against the violin, but is instead a concerto for violin against orchestra - and the violin wins.)
The contrasts are immediate. A lyrical orchestral opening is countered by a fierce secondary theme leading to the violin's entry. The soloist then re-establishes the opening serenity, alternating from that point on between declamation and floating melody - from the fireworks of the cadenza to the glow of the tender music which follows it. The movement has in common with its counterpart in the Beethoven Concerto (its only real rival in the genre) a duration of nearly 20 minutes: unheard-of in a violin concerto.
Brahms' "feeble adagio" we now know as perhaps his most delicate and dreamlike creation - its great opening tune given entirely to the oboe and supporting winds. In fact, the violinist seems to occupy an obliging role as accompanist throughout the movement. The concerto ends with a vigorous rondo-finale. The jolting rhythms suggest a Hungarian influence - a nod to Joachim, to whom the concerto is fittingly dedicated.
— Grant Hiroshima is executive director of a private foundation in Chicago and the former Director of Technology Development for the Los Angeles Philharmonic.