JOHANNES BRAHMS: Violin Concerto in D major, op. 77

Johannes Brahms was born in Hamburg, Germany, on May 7, 1833, and died in Vienna on April 3, 1897. He wrote the Violin Concerto in the summer and early fall of 1878, but the published score incorporates revisions made after the premiere, which was given by the dedicatee, Joseph Joachim, in Leipzig on January 1, 1879, the composer conducting the Gewandhaus Orchestra. In addition to the soloist, the score calls for two each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, timpani, and strings.

The Violin Concerto of Brahms is both a close collaboration of two great friends and the testament to their friendship. Brahms was twenty in May of 1853, when he met the violinist Joseph Joachim, who was also a fine conductor and a solidly grounded composer in his own right. Joachim was just two years older but already well established as a musician. A close bond of mutual idealism sprang up between the two men at once and remained unbroken for more than thirty years. (There was a rupture between them in the mid-1880s, when Brahms clumsily tried to help patch Joachim’s failing marriage. Brahms later composed his Double Concerto as a peace offering; it was accepted, but the two never regained the unfettered frankness of their earlier friendship.)

It is not clear when Joachim first asked Brahms to write him a concerto, but, in any case, he had to wait a number of years before receiving it. Not until the summer of 1878 did the composer feel ready to essay the piece, his first concerto since the one in D minor for piano, which had been a catastrophic failure with the audience at its premiere in 1859. Brahms drafted the score during a fruitful summer in Pörtschach, a favorite beauty spot where, as he wrote, “so many melodies fly about that one must be careful not to step on them.” On August 21, 1878, Brahms suggested to Joachim that they collaborate on the final details of the solo part, since the composer was not himself a violinist. The intensity of the collaboration is evident in the composer’s manuscript score, which bears the marks of extensive revision in Brahms’s hand—often lightening the orchestral texture for the benefit of the soloist—and even more elaborate revisions to the solo part, made in red ink by Joachim himself.

The process of revision even ran beyond the first performance, which took place in Leipzig on New Year’s Day, 1879. Joachim, of course, was the soloist, and the normally shy and retiring Brahms conducted. The critical response was certainly more favorable than it had been for the Piano Concerto two decades earlier, but Brahms was still regarded as a composer of severely intellectual music that made extraordinary demands on its listeners. Despite Joachim’s ardent championing of the Concerto, it did not really join the standard repertory until after the turn of the century.

But Brahms and his friends were clearly pleased; we have an amusing description of the evening’s aftermath from an American, George Whitefield Chadwick, who was a student in Leipzig at the time and soon to become one of America’s leading composers. A few days later Chadwick wrote to a friend:

Joachim played Brahms’ new concerto for the violin in the Gewandhaus that night under Brahms’ own direction, and about one o’clock I saw the precious pair, with little Grieg (who is here this winter) staggering out of Auerbach’s keller (of Faust renown) all congratulating each other in the most frantic manner on the excellent way in which they had begun the New Year. I thought to myself that Johnny Brahms might be the greatest living composer but I did not believe it could save him from having a “Katzenjammer” [hangover] the next day about the size of the Nibelungen Trilogy, as many a lesser composer has had.

What early audiences found difficult to follow in Brahms was the abundance of his invention. He was never simply content to state a musical idea and then restate it; he begins to develop his ideas almost from the moment they appear, and the impact of so much material seemed overwhelming. The opening orchestral ritornello flows in long musical paragraphs, but these are made up of strikingly varied ideas, interwoven in one another, capable of being developed separately or in combination. The unaccompanied melody at the opening, with the orchestra entering softly on an unexpected harmony, is an homage to Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto. The second part of the orchestral exposition runs through a gamut of musical ideas, hinting at but never quite reaching a new lyric melody that finally appears—swaying, coaxing—only when the soloist is able to introduce it in his exposition.

Throughout the movement Brahms is not concerned to produce an excuse for virtuosic fireworks in which the orchestra simply provides support, but to blend the soloist and orchestra into a substantial organism inspired by the Beethoven Violin Concerto, the one earlier work that could be said to occupy the level at which Brahms aimed.

The slow movement was an afterthought, replacing two whole movements that Brahms decided to cut before the premiere. (Characteristically self-effacing, Brahms described them as “the best parts.”) The new Adagio begins with a woodwind passage referred to by violinist Pablo de Sarasate when he explained why he did not intend to learn the new Concerto: “Why should I stand there and let the oboe play the one good tune in the piece?”

Brahms had been introduced to Joachim by a Hungarian violinist, Eduard Reményi, with whom he was touring and who taught Brahms about the style of so-called “gypsy” music. The finale of the Violin Concerto is another delightful essay in imitating that exoticized style, filled with fire, flash, and energy. —© Steven Ledbetter