Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor, op. 15

Composer: 

        Brahms wrote two piano concertos, separated by the passage of some twenty-two years.  This first one is the product of his relative youth, having been completed in 1859, when he was twenty-five.   A youthful work it is not, however.  Brahms had labored over it for most of the decade of the 1850s, and during that time it underwent several substantial transformations.   Originally, Brahms had conceived of the work as a sonata for two pianos—he was a fine pianist, and that medium naturally fell easily to him.  But, as he worked, he came to understand that the imposing nature of his ideas for this composition suggested the full powers of the symphony orchestra.   Ultimately, his difficulties in casting it into the form of a symphony, not to speak of his incomplete mastery of the skill of orchestration, led him finally to cast the work in the form of a piano concerto.   During that process, the last two movements were discarded, and new replacements were crafted.

        During the last half of the nineteenth century Brahms was, of course, the standard bearer for those who believed that the future of music lay in continuing the disciplined classically oriented musical style of Beethoven.   They held that the traditional forms of sonata, concerto, and symphony had not nearly exhausted their viability, and that music should continue to speak in an integrated language that referred to it, alone, and certainly not to extra-musical ideas.   The music of those of the opposite view, Liszt, Wagner, et al, while respecting the music of the past, saw no future in continuing that tradition.  Today, most of those who compose, perform, and listen to art music see no contradiction in valuing both aesthetics.

        With that as background, Brahms’ first concerto honors those traditions of the past in its form and the nature of its musical ideas and their manipulation, but it is not conventional in any sense.   This powerful work betrays its own genesis in the pronounced importance given to the orchestra—in fact; critics of the time (and some of today) snidely called it a symphony with “piano obbligato.”  But, of course, that matters not; great works of art take their own way.   The massive first movement (inspired by the beginning of Beethoven’s ninth symphony) starts conventionally, for the times, with a long exposition by the orchestra alone, before the entrance of the piano.   While the part of the piano is quite difficult, and demands a virtuoso, it cannot be characterized as based in empty virtuosic bombast like so many other concertos of the time.   The demands of the part simply grow out of Brahms’ musical style and the task of the piano in the ample orchestral context.   Many have posited a connection between the suicide attempt by Robert Schumann and the tone of this movement—but that is not clear.   What is clear, however, is that Brahms, himself, characterized the remarkable beauty of the Adagio second movement as a “gentle portrait” of his beloved Clara Schumann, Robert’s wife.   He wrote in the score under the opening melody, “Benedictus, qui venit, in nomine Domini!”  Not surprisingly, the third movement is clearly based upon the like movement of Beethoven’s third piano concerto.  It—typically—is a rondo, that is, a fast, spirited movement with an easily recognized theme that returns several times, with contrasting ideas interspersed.

            Early performances of this masterpiece were not successful—in Leipzig the audience was not receptive and hissed the work with great enthusiasm.   One critic averred that it offered nothing but “waste” and “barren dreariness.”   Brahms was not deterred, however.   He wrote to his friend, Joachim, “In spite of all this, the concerto will please some day . . . .“   And so it has.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan