Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

Born May 7, 1833 in Hamburg
Died April 3, 1897 in Vienna

Brahms and Joachim

Concerto in D for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 77

Composed in 1878
First Performance: Joseph Joachim soloist Gewandhaus Orchestra Leipzig Jan 1, 1879
Instrumentation: Violin Solo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns and 2 trumpets, timpani, strings.

On tour in 1853 as accompanist to the Hungarian violinist Reményi (Eduard Hoffmann) Brahms met the famous violin virtuoso Joseph Joachim (1831-1907) in Göttingen. Joachim suggested that he meet Robert and Clara Schumann who had written a Fantasy and Violin Concerto that year for Joachim whom he had just met that May. On September 30 Brahms arrived at the Schumann home and stayed for a month!

In his October 28, 1853 Neue Zeitschrift article that introduced the 20 year old Brahms to the public, Robert Schumann described him as a “[piano] player of genius.” Brahms had limited violin technique. When he began his Violin Concerto he sought technical advice from Joachim.

The Violin Concerto was composed while on vacation during the summer of 1878 in the Austrian town Pörtschach on Lake Wörth, the same village where the previous summer he had composed his Second Symphony, also in D major.

On August 24, 1878, Brahms sent Joachim the violin part of the first movement of the Concerto. Brahms wrote “After having written it out, I really do not know what you will make of the solo part alone. It was my intention, of course, that you 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 mark those parts which are difficult, awkward, or impossible to play.” Joachim replied: “It gives me great pleasure to know that you are composing a violin concerto! I have had a good look at what you sent me and have made a few notes and alterations, but without the full score I cannot say much. I can make out most of it, however, and there is a lot of really good violin music in it.”

The concerto was not universally accepted at first which is shown by a famous quote attributed to both the conductor Hans von Bülow and violinist Joseph Hellmesberger, that “Bruch had written a great concerto for the violin, Brahms had written his against it.” The Polish violinist, Huberman seems to have had the last word by stating that the work is “a concerto for violin against orchestra and the violin wins!”

The concerto begins with an orchestra tutti that introduces the three main themes of the movement the first of which consists of three recurring motifs. (Examples 1-3). These are played consecutively

Example 1.

Example 2.

Example 3.

The second theme and a variant (Example 4) are then presented. In this variant Brahms characteristically blurs the meter with a 5 note grouping of notes.

Example 4. Second theme

The final material that is presented right before the entrance of the soloist is a brash minor flourish which introduces a recurring rhythmic motif.

Example 5.

When the soloist finally enters there is a wealth of material that is developed. The movement includes a cadenza – an extended virtuoso passage for the soloist alone towards its end. The cadenza most frequently performed is the original one written by Joachim but there are others written by Kreisler, Auer, Busoni and Tovey.

The middle movement introduces a lovely melody played by a solo oboe which is then picked up by the violin solo and elaborated at length. The violinist Sarasate declared, “I don’t deny that it is very good music, but do you think I could fall so low as to stand, violin in hand, and listen to the oboe play the only proper tune in the work?”

Example 6.

The finale is a rondo which is a form where a central theme is alternated with several others. The main theme has a distinctly Hungarian flavor.

Example 7.

This time the soloist starts the movement instead of standing around waiting. Once again there is a terse introduction of materials followed by a greatly expanded coda where they are fully developed – a technique used by Schumann in his C major Symphony.