Brahms (1833-97) - Violin Concerto
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.
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.
the First Piano Concerto (1859), German Requiem (1868), and
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!
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.
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!
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.
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,
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