Concerto in A minor for Violin, Cello, and Orchestra, op. 102 (“Double”)

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            “This is a chosen one.”  Robert Schumann so characterized Johannes Brahms in his famous article that introduced the young Brahms to the public.  Little did he know!  Brahms went on to become the last great successor of the artistic mantle of musical Classicism that led from Joseph Haydn, through Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert.  That’s taking the rather narrow view, of course, for there were others who followed who revered the classical attributes of restraint, balance, clarity of form, elegance, and general equipoise that came to characterize the collective features known as classical musical style.   And they stand in clear contrast to the sweeping trends and excesses of music Romanticism that came to dominate European music until the cataclysm of World War I.

            Roughly, the composers of the nineteenth century after Beethoven tended to divide themselves into two groups.  The progressives were true “Romantics,” and were greatly influenced by the extra-musical ideas that were the subjects of contemporary literature, poetry, and painting, among others.  They devised new genres, such as the tone poems of Smetana and Liszt, the music dramas of Wagner, and the characteristic piano pieces of Chopin.  Much of this music, to use a phrase still common among seekers of meaning in music, was about “something”--meaning something familiar to human experience. Liszt and Wagner, et al, while respecting the music of the past, saw no future in continuing that tradition.

            Others, Brahms most significantly, still adhered strongly to the rather musically abstract style of Beethoven.   He and other conservatively minded musicians 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 itself, alone, and certainly not to extra-musical ideas.  So, he and his ilk continued to write “pure,” or “abstract” music, like sonatas and symphonies (a so-called symphony is just a sonata for orchestra). Today, most of those who compose, perform, and listen to art music see no contradiction at all in valuing both broad aesthetic viewpoints—so we enjoy the best of both worlds.

            Double concertos, primarily those for solo violin and violoncello with orchestra are not uncommon—there being more than four dozen by recognized composers over the centuries.  Of those, the past decade or so has seen some by significant composers such as Roger Sessions, Ned Rorem, and André Previn.  Nevertheless, one stands almost alone in its towering reputation and frequency of performance, and that is Brahms’ work.  Although composed in 1887, ten years before his death, it is the composer’s last work for orchestra.  It is dedicated to his life-long friend and musical collaborator, the violin virtuoso, Joseph Joachim, one of the most celebrated violinists of the century.  Joachim’s wife was also a close friend of the composer, and after a nasty divorce between the couple, Brahms was estranged from the violinist.  Finally, reconciliation came in the form of the Double Concerto, which Brahms had composed as a kind of peace offering to Joachim.  The ‘cellist for the première was also a longtime friend and collaborator with Brahms, Robert Hausmann. 

            The work was first performed in Cologne in October of 1887, and received a mixed reception from the critics.  Many considered it a somewhat austere—even overly modern composition--and not a particularly brilliant showpiece for the soloists. And many newcomers, indeed, still encounter it as a somewhat intellectual exercise in compositional virtuosity.  Those observations have adherents, but veteran Brahms listeners adore the work. It certainly does not fit the stereotype of the typical romantic concerto, one that emphasizes showy pyrotechnics and warm, lyrical melodies.  It does, nevertheless, require two virtuosos in the solo parts, performers who are skilled at close musical communication and mutual expressivity.

            In addition to simply “inventing” themes, composers over the years have often looked for clever ways to generate their ideas--and at the same time, limit them to drive the challenge.  The motivic material that Brahms chose stems from a familiar idea that he and the violinist, Joachim, had shared years before.  Joachim had chosen as a kind of personal motto, Frei aber einsam (free but lonely).  The first letters of each word, F A E, provide the musical motif that Brahms had used years earlier in the F-A-E Sonata, that he, along with Schumann and Albert Dietrich, had written for Joachim.  In the double concerto, as in Brahms’ movement in the sonata, the composer slightly rearranged them to provide the motif, A E F, which one will hear transformed and integrated thoroughly throughout the first movement.   Listen constantly for the intervals of a fourth and a step.  They’re everywhere, frontwards, backwards, and upside down, turned in and out. You can’t miss it. The process is a tour de force of compositional integrity and unity—a milestone on the path from Beethoven to Schoenberg in the eyes of many.

            The orchestra opens the first movement with a powerful, brief statement of just this little motive, but the ‘cello immediately jumps in with an energetic cadenza.   It doesn’t last long, for the woodwind section then announces the second major idea (unusually this early, for a typical first movement), a gentle, signing idea.  That provides an opening for the violinist, who starts his own cadenza, but it joined by ‘cello for a joint affair.  Here, as in much of the work, Brahms treats the two soloists as a kind of super, solo stringed instrument that takes two people to play—an ingenious approach that eschews a simple alternation between two players.  Soon, the full orchestra takes over, the traditional exposition begins, and we clearly hear the themes in the orchestra.   When the soloists respond, again the little three-note motive is clearly perceived.  When the sighing, lyrical second theme inevitably comes, again, the ‘cello announces it first. Both the solo violin and ‘cello together begin the development of these ideas, playing the familiar three-note fourth and a step.  Brahms then goes on to work his inimitable wizardry by wringing myriad ideas out of the simple material that we’ve heard.  When the recap comes, it’s easy to spot, for it sounds just like the opening of the movement.  The whole movement is eloquent testimony of the composer at the top of his game.

            After all of the technical compositional complexity of the first movement, the second is warm, lyrical Brahms at his most memorable.  The horns, followed by the woodwinds, open with—what else?—the interval of a fourth that played such an important rôle in the first movement.  The two soloists jump right in octaves with the eloquent, singing, theme—opening with, of course, our old friend, the interval of fourth.  After working through the tune a bit, Brahms then introduces contrasting material, led by the woodwinds.  Here, the orchestra plays a soft, hymn-like background while the soloists rhapsodize over it alternatively and together.  Soon, a return to the sonorous opening material—but, of course, slightly varied—takes us to the end of this most Brahmsian of lovely slow movements.

            The last movement, as one may expect, is a galloping rondo—simply a striking idea that returns after a couple of contrasting diversions.  In this case, Brahms returns to a style that from time to time had interested him since his early days—the so-called “gypsy” influence.  But it must be said, in this work, it’s a rather vague allusion.  Nevertheless, the opening, main idea has the élan and vivacity of that tradition.  The first diversion is characterized by double stops in both instruments, as they exchange back and forth. After a return to the opening idea, the second main diversion comes—a rather more intense affair that includes the overlapping arpeggios of the soloists in the first movement.  After that, the whole first section returns to round things off, pausing only briefly with a moment of lyricism before the dash to the end.

            There may be dozens of other “double” concertos over the years, but, in reality, there is only one of this consequence.  Although a late work, with all of the gravitas that is associated with Brahms at his most disciplined and accomplished, it is one of great riches for the patient listener.  The composer deftly solved the difficulties of balancing two equal, virtuoso soloists with the orchestra and created a marvelously attractive concerto, as well.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2018 William E. Runyan