Violin Concerto in D Major, op. 77

Printer Friendly VersionSend by email

            The music of Johannes Brahms has come to stand at the center of the best of Western art music; that it is so is owing to the composer’s firm grounding in the traditions of musical style and forms that lead directly back to the Viennese masters of Haydn, Mozart, Schubert and Beethoven.  Seriousness of purpose, respect for tradition, and a formidable technical mastery led to a musical style practically unexcelled in artistic integrity.   At a time when much of musical Europe was pushing out into new forms, harmonic boldness and freedom, and an emotional content untrammeled by any restraints, Brahms trod the more conservative and traditional path, and was seen by many as the inheritor of the mantle of Beethoven.   It would be a mistake to imagine Brahms as waging artistic war against the likes of Wagner and Liszt, and their followers—rather he admired much of their work.  But, he was his own man, and while not universally hailed for many years after his death, he is now firmly ensconced in the pantheon of the great composers.

            The shadow of Beethoven loomed over the young Brahms as he developed and matured as a composer, his gradual and lengthy growth evidenced in the long years he spent working on his first symphony—he finally finished it in 1876, when he was 43 years of age.  Its relationship in a multiplicity of ways to Beethoven’s last symphony was understood from the first.  The second symphony followed the next year, and the logjam was broken, for in 1878, Brahms went on to write his violin concerto, one of five concertos in his oeuvre—the others:  two for piano, one for cello, one for violin and cello.  His violin concerto has come to take a place at the center of the most respected works for solo violin, and its roots may be traced to several important factors in his early life. 

            Brahms was a fine pianist, and made his way in the world early on as a performer on that instrument.  In 1848, the year of revolution in Europe, many Hungarians made their way to Hamburg for purposes of emigration to America, and Brahms—always engaged with various levels of society—fell under the sway of the Hungarian and gypsy musical style.  About that time, he encountered the Hungarian violinist, Ede Reményi, and undoubtedly adopted many of the characteristic rhythmic and metric traits of the latter’s national style that later became so integral to his own voice. Reményi returned from America some five years later and the two went on a concert tour together.  It was also during this tour, in Göttingen, that Brahms met the great violin virtuoso, Joseph Joachim, beginning a deep friendship and professional relationship that lasted a lifetime. They went on to concertize together for years.  Brahms had already heard Joachim in 1848 in a performance of Beethoven’s violin concerto, and the work made a deep and lasting impression on the young Brahms.           

            So, taken altogether, this inevitably led to the Brahms’ violin concerto of 1878, written for, and dedicated to, Joachim, his best friend and one of the most respected violinists in the world. Certainly, the attributes of Joachim that Brahms deeply respected was not only his virtuosity, but also his intelligence, seriousness of purpose, and trustworthy critical acumen.  So, not only did Joachim provide the first-movement cadenza that has stood the test of time, he was a constant counsel on technical matters in the composition of the solo part.  In point of fact, they continued to exchange correspondence well after the première regarding changes to fine points in the work.

            Although cast in the familiar three movements of the typical concerto form, Brahms had originally conceived the work in four movements—a hint of his conception of the piece as a major and weighty contribution to the solo violin literature (and there was Beethoven’s monumental concerto looming over his shoulder, we must remember.)  That fell through—Brahms abandoned the work on the two middle movements, but they may well have surfaced in other of his works.  Instead, he substituted a single adagio that he rather deprecated, but a happy substitution it was.  There are many parallels between Brahms’ work and the model of Beethoven’s before him, but they need not detain us here. 

            The first movement is the “meat” of the composition—it goes on for well over twenty minutes--and, let’s be frank, it is a case in point of what is often characterized as Brahms’ “severity” of style.  It is said that the first movement “puzzled” the first audience, and it can be challenging for many, even today.  It begins in a deceptively low- keyed mood, but with elements that suggest these ideas will take a while to work out.  The orchestra is given a substantial shot at the material before the entrance of the soloist, and there unfolds an exploration of Brahms’ ideas in a thorough and lengthy process.  “Big tunes” don’t really jump out at one, but rather there evolves a dense sifting out of musical possibilities and implications that is Brahms’ intellectuality writ large.  The movement is rather complex from a formal standpoint, and after a long development, the famous cadenza appears--and a piece of work it is.  Joachim’s contribution is a daunting exploration of Brahms’ ideas, couched in technical challenges that, while virtuosic in nature, never seem empty and inappropriately flashy.  The first audience was motivated to applaud at its conclusion, but I imagine no one will be tempted to interrupt the soft, but tense and hushed atmosphere leading to the serene conclusion of the movement.

            The slow movement is a study in variations on a simple, but pregnant theme that is introduced by the solo oboe, accompanied by the horns and woodwinds.  The tune is reminiscent—but far more tranquil—of the famous horn call in the finale of his first symphony, composed only a few years earlier.  A contrasting theme is heard in the middle of this perfect example of Brahms’ signature “elegiac” style, and it ends quietly.

            One will recall the composer’s early encounter with the fire and rhythmic kick of the Hungarian style—it is one of his stylistic markers.   The last movement is a delightful romp in this tradition, and even if you don’t easily remember melodic themes from the other movements, the main one here, played in double stops by the soloist, may jog your memory.  The main tune—and it is a “tune”—alternates with other material, tossed back and forth between the soloist and the orchestra in the best tradition of the concerto.   The challenging “severity” of the first movement is all forgotten, and it’s easy to see why this marvelous work stands among the best at the top of great violin literature.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan