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Brahms (1833-97) - Violin Concerto

The precocious young Brahms taught violin, piano and even composition, but by his late teens had to supplement his income playing piano in theatres, dances - and even prostitute-infested taverns. In one such iniquitous dive the Violin Concerto's story began, when the youngster's playing so impressed Eduard Reményi, an exiled Hungarian violinist, that he employed Brahms as his accompanist, and eventually introduced him to Joachim. 

Brahms' compositions prompted Joachim to introduce him to Liszt and Schumann, and by 1856, as Princesse Frederike's piano tutor, Brahms had a cushy job leaving lots of time for composition. In 1860, for signing that infamous “manifesto” opposing the “new music” of Liszt et al., he was branded a reactionary. Unjustly, as Brahms was comparably progressive. Working from established tradition, he married architecturally expanded classical forms with passionate expression, a “missing link” between early Romanticism and the Wagner school which in the chain might have made musical evolution more logically inevitable. 

Following the First Piano Concerto (1859), German Requiem (1868), and Symphonies 1 and 2 (1876/7), the Violin Concerto (1878) was written for, with the invaluable advice of, and (probably) inspired by Joachim, who furnished the sympathetic cadenza. Brahms, having tried “symphonising” the form with his First Piano Concerto and poised to succeed gloriously with the Second (1881), planned the Violin Concerto in four movements. In a typically self-denigrating letter to Joachim, he reported, “The two middle movements have fallen through. Naturally they were the best ones. However, I have substituted a feeble adagio.” Remember that as you listen! 

Brahms conducted the première, given by Joachim on New Year's Day 1879. Not an instant success, only Joachim's unstinting championship kept it off the musical scrapheap. Karl Geringer, Brahms' biographer, finding a kindred spirit of the Second Symphony, compares the first movement with that of Beethoven's concerto. Really, though, it encapsulates Brahms' ethos: music for the most expressive instrument, incredibly lyrical and passionate (Brahms as dry as dust? Poppycock!), yet unprecedentedly strong and formally complex. Whether sat back basking, or leant forward studying, you derive endless enjoyment. 

1. Allegro ma non troppo: Brahms' remark concerning Bruckner's “symphonic boa-constrictors” was presumably humorous, being far more apposite to this movement. Classical composers keep sonata-form development tidily subsequent to exposition. Brahms doesn't. He expands the “orchestral introduction”, immediately stating and developing the fertile first subject, establishing a pervasive creative flux. Two “markers”, descending woodwind chords and a martial figure, first heard announcing the soloist, aid structural legibility. The woodwind chords herald both exposition and recapitulation of the second subject, lyrical ripples against the first's rollers. The soloist uses the martial figure to launch the “proper” development. Blended into the recapitulation, unmarked, this starts (I think) where the violin carries the first subject into the stratosphere. The cadenza, like a Bach partita in its violinistic polyphony, needs no marker! 

2. Adagio: comprises rhapsodic variations on a lullaby for solo oboe over horns and woodwind. The first variation ends in a dissonant episode tailed by a curiously angular phrase on flute. This is re-used near the end, adding spice and a feeling of “arch” structure. At the centre, an apparently new theme is heard briefly, as ardent emotions alternately ebb and flow. The original tune reappears, now a duet between the oboe and soloist. There is a particularly delightful touch as the music settles onto a “final” chord: woodwind nudge the violin to one further blissful comment before, reluctantly, letting the movement end. 

3. Allegro giocoso, ma no troppo vivace: The key word is “giocoso” (“jocular”)! The soloist nips in first, tossing his jaunty theme to the orchestra. Countersubject and main subject reprise suggest a classical rondo, except that here a development section begins, so it's a sonata. But wait! After some first subject “development”, isn't that a third theme? Maybe it's a rondo after all. No - the second subject gets re-jigged, then the soloist elaborates the first: not quite rondo or sonata! There's more: a forceful orchestral statement of the first subject, with solo interjections, primes a cadenza. The violin starts, to find the orchestra sneaking in. The violin joins the “coda”, which unexpectedly suspends. The soloist tries again, but the orchestra rudely interrupts with a marching rhythm. Ruefully, the violin adds a merry first subject variant, and off they go (again) into the coda. Genuinely, this time, because the second subject gets involved. As the soloist relaxes on a first subject fragment, several loud chords emphatically conclude an archetypical concerto “battle”.

© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street, Kamo, Whangarei 0101, Northland, New Zealand


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