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Length: c. 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, Georg Schnéevoigt conducting, with violinist Albert Spalding
Brahms was a great pianist, but he would never have wanted to be identified with the armies of piano virtuosos who toured Europe and composed flashy variations on tunes from Mozart’s and Verdi’s operas. His two piano concertos are stern and serious works, and when it came to writing a violin concerto his model was unquestionably going to be Beethoven, not Paganini. He made that doubly plain by choosing Beethoven’s key, D major, and by following Beethoven’s precedent with a long, lyrical first movement in full classical sonata form.
Perhaps we should be surprised that he composed a violin concerto at all. Joseph Joachim, for whom it was written, was the first important musician he met when he left his Hamburg home at the age of 20 to seek fame and fortune. Joachim, almost the same age, was already an international star at that time, and the two struck up a firm friendship that lasted over 40 years. In composing a concerto for Joachim 25 years after their first meeting, Brahms worked closely with him in fashioning the solo part; he clearly intended the Concerto to be a test of the player’s technique and musicianship and to be free of any suspicion of unmotivated display. Display itself is, of course perfectly legitimate, in fact desirable, in a concerto, so it remains for us only to judge whether the soloist’s leaps, arpeggios, double stops, and passage-work are intrinsic to the work or not. The earliest critics were in some doubt, although the violin writing now strikes us as a model of good taste and sensitive musicianship. Others, such as the great Spanish virtuoso Sarasate, felt it had no tunes. “Would I stand there,” he said, “violin in hand, while the oboe plays the only melody in the whole work?”
The Concerto was first performed in Leipzig on New Year’s Day 1879 by Joachim, the dedicatee, who composed the cadenza that is still played by many violinists today. Never fond of waste, Brahms presents his first movement’s main theme as a bare unison at the very start of the work, based on a D-major triad. Eight measures later the oboe offers something nearer to a scale; eight measures further on the full orchestra dwells on leaping octaves. Gradually the thematic material finds its place, some presented by the orchestra, more provided by the soloist after he has flexed his muscles (46 measures of – yes – display). Eventually we reach a gloriously lyrical second subject, which seems to express the very soul of the violin. The finest moment is reserved for the coda, after the cadenza, when the soloist soars higher and higher in dreamy flight before a final resumption of the main tempo.
The slow movement, in F major, opens with a long theme for the oboe with wind accompaniment. When the soloist takes it up the strings accompany, and the textures and harmonies become gradually more adventurous, only brought back to earth for the return of the main theme and the main key.
The finale’s boisterous lilt is a tribute to Joachim’s Hungarian birth. But as in Joachim himself, who never returned to Hungary or sympathized with its nationalist causes, other themes of a quite un-Hungarian character intervene, including a dynamic rising scale in octaves and a beautifully lyrical episode where the meter changes briefly from a stamping 2/4 to a gentle 3/4. The final switch to a 6/8 pulse with heavy off-beats is one of Brahms’ stranger inventions, and the dying decline of the last few bars is stranger still.
Hugh Macdonald is Avis Blewett Professor of Music at Washington University in St. Louis. He has published books on Scriabin and Berlioz, and his book of essays Beethoven’s Century appeared in 2008.