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
About this Piece
Although Brahms lived for twelve years after completing his Symphony No. 4 in 1885, he produced only one more orchestral work, and that one not a symphony but a concerto. And no ordinary solo concerto, either, but rather a composition which united for the first time in the form the violin and cello.
Why a concerto for this unusual combination? It has been ventured that the work was meant as a peace offering to the composer’s dear, but at-the-time alienated friend, violinist Joseph Joachim, understandably hurt that a letter of Brahms which was sympathetic to Joachim’s wife was brought as evidence in the couple’s divorce proceedings. When their mutual friend, cellist Robert Hausmann, asked Brahms for a concerto in 1887, the composer apparently saw a way to satisfy the cellist and win back the friendship of the violinist. Brahms’ instincts were right. Joachim was receptive to Brahms’ concerto overtures, and after Joachim, Hausmann, and Brahms had tried out the piece for friends, Clara Schumann wrote in her diary, “The Concerto is a work of reconciliation. Joachim and Brahms have spoken to one another again.”
The Concerto was a work of reconciliation on more than just the personal level, for it united the elements of the Baroque concerto grosso, its solo group (concertino) pitted against the orchestra, with Classical concerto form. Mozart had made the not-so-disparate violin and viola soloists in a Sinfonia Concertante, and Beethoven in his Triple Concerto joined piano, violin, and cello. And now here was Brahms’ violin-cello wedding, which was predicated not on the exploitation of the soloistic couple’s contrasting individualities, but on their ability to live happily together if given the advantages of powerful and congenial materials. These the composer provided in abundance, lavishing on the Concerto a wealth of ideas that are worked out with the commanding skill born of rich experience.
Instead of finding the instruments’ huge combined range unwieldy, Brahms makes the most of it, setting off the contrasting highs and lows with unflinching conviction. For the many passages in which the instruments meet at the same range and even on the same pitches, Brahms had to have faith that the cello and violin would fuse in an enhanced sonorous blend rather than project separate and perhaps clashing identities. Such artistic demands as these, as well as a full catalog of other, equally formidable ones, are made throughout the Double Concerto. (Dur- ing the Concerto’s tryout period, both Joachim and Hausmann advised the com- poser on certain matters of the technique of their respective instruments. Some of their suggestions seem to have made the parts easier to play, while others made them more difficult.)
Solo as well as duo passages abound throughout the work, the first solo — for cello — arriving in the fifth measure. The four measures preceding this solo entrance contain, not introductory material, but a forthright statement of the movement’s stern — no, angry — main theme. That the lone cello can cast aside this orchestral energy is a clear demonstration of the earliest and most basic concerto principle: one against the many. In this case, the cello as adversary is soon to be joined by a soloistic ally, the violin, and the two share an elaborate cadenza declaring their intention of independence before the orchestra returns for a complete exposition of the main theme. In contrast to this sinewy, propulsive main matter, the second theme, led by the cello and echoed by the violin, is the epitome of winsome gentleness. The complex working out of the remainder of the movement is as impassioned and songful as the opening suggests it will be.
The perfect respite from the intensities of the first movement is supplied by the broad lyricism of the second. It begins with violin and cello, a resonant octave apart, singing one of Brahms’ most expansive melodies, a theme suffused with rhapsodic warmth not untouched by melancholy.
Other ideas enter, but they are only accessories to the gleaming expressiveness of the main melody.
The finale, vigorously pursuing A-minor tensions after engaging in the Andante’s D-major relaxations, is part gypsy, part philosopher, part struggling demon, with the struggle ending at last in A-major triumph. — Orrin Howard