Week38: brahms violin concerto


In October 1853, with a pack on his back and walking staff in hand, Brahms knocked on the Schumanns’ door. After he played a few pieces for them, Robert patted him on the shoulder and said vaguely, “We understand each other.” That night Schumann wrote in his journal, “Visit from Brahms (a genius).”  From that point the couple more or less adopted Johannes, adding him to their noisy houseful of children. A few months later, Schumann wrote a journal article that essentially declared this twenty-year-old student the heir of Beethoven and the coming savior of German music---by implication, saving it from what Schumann saw as the depredations of Liszt and Wagner, who had turned away from classical forms towards music based on ideas and stories. “” jan swafford, Language of the Spirit

a concerto is perhaps to classical music what basketball is to team-sports inasmuch as today’s NBA is geared towards star-power and one player can be the difference between the Cavs finishing first in the eastern conference last year and second-last in the east this year (a symphony is in that sense akin to hockey). the concerto, as a format, is designed with a star-soloist in mind and a way of adding a living name right next to the often very dead one of the composer at the top of the program.

History would paint Brahms as the great abstractionist, but he never saw himself that way. He was intensely connected to the world, and his art rose from and reflected life. Only it was not his style to proclaim epochal agendas, as Wagner and his followers did. Brahms didn’t believe art could change the world, no matter how much the world needed changing. For him music was a private matter, from the heart of the composer to the heart of each listener. “” jan swafford, Language of the Spirit

watching janine jansen perform brahmsViolin Concerto in D Major  is a reminder that the concerto perhaps means a bit more than the comparison i made above: well performed, a concerto is the most vivid incarnation of a composer’s creative spirit. the third movement---a humid fiesta, a prance, the melody a waltzing swirling romp---seemed itself of jansen’s creation, the indelible stamps of her mannerisms are here and there evident.

When Brahms and the violinist reached Weimar, they visited Remenyi’s mentor Franz Liszt. The famous man was welcoming, played through Brahms’s luscious, faux-demonic Scherzo in E-flat Minor brilliantly at sight. As Liszt went on to play his own B-Minor Sonata, however, Brahms was observed dozing off. Soon began a musical feud that would simmer for decades, Brahms on one side and Liszt and his colleague Richard Wagner on the other. “” jan swafford, Language of the Spirit


the first movement opens with the introduction of the movement’s main theme on horns and thereon to a more boisterous segment before engaging the soloist in a back-and-forth dialogue---the tête-à-tête ends with one of the many prolonged and showy cadenzas that gives this work it’s notorious difficulty. more of that he-said she-said until the movement reaches a head with a phrase on the violin (cat like and stalking), the orchestral development dissolves into pizzicato as a background to a sombre melody and returns to a furious turn on violin that is echoed and amplified by the string section. strings and brass sections volley a couple fragments back and forth before a tune on clarinet interrupts and is taken up by the solo instrument. more is said and done, the soloist mounts another tortuous cadenza that ends with the ignition of full orchestra, bridging the return of that stalking phrase.

Hence the well-known quip of Hans von Bulow that Max Bruch’s more conventionally idiomatic G-minor Concerto was for the violin, but Brahms’ was against it. “” botstein, The Compleat Brahms

the style of the symphony is what can be described as a combination of schubertian lyricism and gypsy song (reinvented by contemporary fiddlers like andrew bird). it’s the same intensity as sibeliusViolin Concerto (both of whom wrote only one of the type) but the exact opposite in temperature. whereas sibelius’ northern sensibilities and frosty discipline characterize his D-minor concerto, brahms’ concerto in D-major is of more mediterranean sensibilities, as flushed and ruddy as the composer’s likeness is often depicted, with a buoyant humidity in the closing Allegro that is just a couple bpms away from dance music. The middle Adagio, not cold and morose, is a sombre development beginning on sonorous bassoon with a melody that carried through oboes, flutes and french horn before the soloist joins in with varieties of an elegiac melody that drags into the fiery third movement.    

After the chaotic years with Robert and Clara, Brahms wanted no more drama in his life. He pulled himself out of his anxieties, found his voice, and settled into a busy life of composing, performing, frequenting brothels, and fighting with his friends. “” jan swafford, Language of the Spirit


Funk & Wagnalls recording // Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) // Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 77

Innsbruck Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Robert Wagner with Violinist Susan Lautenbacher

Violin Concerto in D Major

  • Allegro non troppo.

  • Adagio

  • Allegro giocoso, ma non troppo vivace

Hungarian Dances for Orchestra

  • No.17, No.19 and No.21