Mercury Orchestra


Notes on the composers and the pieces

Johannes Brahms

Johannes Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 15

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) is often viewed as an old heavily bearded Viennese burgher, but as a young man, he was dashing and with many friends. One was violinist Joseph Joachim, whom Brahms met in 1853 while touring with violinist Eduard Reményi. Joachim became a lifelong friend who wrote a note introducing Brahms to Franz Liszt. Later, he wrote one for the composer to take on a visit to the home of Robert and Clara Schumann in Düsseldorf. The couple received him with enthusiasm, and he played several of his works for them, most notably the C-Major and F-Sharp Major piano sonatas. Both Schumanns were enthusiastic, and Brahms became a close family friend. Robert also wrote an article, “Neue Bahnen” (New Paths), in Neue Zeitschrift für Musik that called Brahms’s piano sonatas verschleierte Symphonien (veiled symphonies) and the young man, “the Chosen One…to give ideal expression to the times,” among other accolades.1 Later, he labeled Brahms “a real Beethovener.” Robert’s article created a buzz for which Brahms was grateful, but it also put the pressure of great expectations on the shoulders of the young composer.

And then the proverbial roof fell in. In February 1854, Robert Schumann tried to end it all by jumping into the Rhine River. After fishermen pulled him out, he had himself committed to an asylum, where he lived until his death in July 1856. For some reason, his doctors feared that visits by Clara would negatively impact his mental state, but they allowed entrance to Brahms, who was deeply affected by his friend’s illness and visited often when not composing and traveling. Meanwhile, Clara, a composer herself and a great pianist, toured, taught, and raised her eight children. In the process, she and Brahms became close and looked out for each other in a relationship whose nature is not entirely understood.

A few weeks after Robert’s suicide attempt, Brahms was working on a dual piano sonata whose dramatic opening measures almost certainly depicted the leap into the Rhine. One night he and Clara played three movements of the sonata to the approval of conductor friend Albert Dietrich. Not long after writing Joachim that two pianos were “not enough” for him, he decided to turn the score into the symphony that Robert and Clara had been urging him to write,2 but that was not the end of it. One day, he wrote Clara that he dreamed he was playing his symphony as a piano concerto. He was “completely enraptured” and decided to turn the symphony into a piano concerto, retaining the symphony’s first movement and perhaps the Scherzo (which instead became the “Behold All Flesh” chorus in the German Requiem).3

After Robert’s death, Brahms returned to his home city of Hamburg to work on the concerto and some other pieces. Composing the Adagio went smoothly, but organizing the first movement and coming up with a plan for the finale was a three-year struggle. In many ways, he was not prepared to write a work of such emotional depth and complexity. A major problem was his inexperience with orchestration. Until then his only orchestral work was the lightly scored Serenade No. 1, but composer and conductor Julius Grimm helped, and Joachim contributed suggestions on other matters.

He finally finished the work late in 1859, five years after the initial idea of the dual piano sonata. No fan of the Romantic “showpiece” concerto with a soloist doing star turns in front of a back-up orchestra, Brahms produced what Ludwig Finscher called a “symphonic concerto” with the orchestra an equal partner. He wrote the piece for himself, and if the piano part is difficult and showy, it is because it demands the physical dexterity and strength that he possessed. The work is in three movements and uses a “classical” orchestra with four prominent French horns—an instrument that would be a Brahms trademark in years to come.

The brawny Maestoso begins with what Anton Bruckner called “a theme fit for a symphony.” Its powerful leaps, aggressive, chilly trills, and unstable harmony over deep, dark bass and timpani recreate Robert Schumann’s leap into the river. From there, several themes weave together in a complex exposition: a funereal melody in the strings interwoven with winds; a lyrical idea in the woodwinds; a rhythmic, celebratory passage; a rising exalted melody introduced by the piano, and a quiet horn fanfare. After the orchestra slows to a calm rest, percussive fourths in the piano call forth an intricate development beginning with the opening music. Another call to arms—this time insistant militaristic orchestral rhythms—returns to that opening music for the recapitulation, which is almost a second development. The conclusion is defiant. These ideas are amazingly well put together in a synthesis that flows with power, lyricism, and ingenious invention beyond its time.

The Adagio is one of reflective repose. It opens with a sad chorale-like tune in the orchestra, over which Brahms wrote Benedictus qui venit in nominee Domini from the Latin Mass (later crossed out). Max Kalbeck thought the line honored Schumann, partly because Brahms once called his friend Mynherr Domine, though many scholars believe the movement as a whole is a portrait of Clara. In this movement, the orchestra generally plays the main lines, and the piano embellishes and develops them, sometimes alone. Quite interesting is how some piquant notes in the woodwinds and piano seem almost modernist,

Rondo: Allegro non troppo. Brahms changes the mood entirely with a vigorous finale modeled on the rondo finale of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3, a work he knew well. The form is ABACABA, with A upbeat and heavily bubbling, B a flowing variant of A, and C a short forceful section turned loose by the horns. The last A section is thickly developed, complex, and includes a fugue in the strings. Richard Wilson notes that the two cadenzas have structural functions, the first leading to a key change, the second to a triumphant coda that includes some thrilling chord changes.

The concerto’s 1859 premiere in Hanover went well, if not as well as Brahms thought, but a performance in Leipzig failed miserably. Few people clapped, there was hissing, all but one review was negative, and one referred to the concerto derogatorily as a “symphony with piano obbligato” (a term usually referring to an essential but subordinate role). Apparently, a Leipzig audience beholden to the ghost of Felix Mendelssohn was expecting a concerto typical of their favorite son, not some steamroller. They did not like Brahms much to begin with, and an earlier imagined insult of Mendelssohn by Brahms’s advocate, Schumann, did not help. One result was that publishers Breitkopf and Hartel rejected the concerto, leaving it for the Swiss firm of Melchior Rieter-Biedermann to publish later. The work struggled for acceptance (through several revisions) until the end of the century,4 but it revolutionized the concerto form and affected the symphony form, as well.

Brahms accepted the Leipzig debacle with outward equanimity, though he had struggled greatly and with self doubt to write the piece. “I am only experimenting and feeling my way as yet,” he wrote Joachim, but a lesson was learned. As Jan Swafford wrote in his indispensable biography of Brahms, “He would not put before the public another work of comparable scope until he was certain he was ready. Not for another fifteen years did he feel ready. He never sailed blind again.”

—Roger Hecht

Roger Hecht plays trombone in the Mercury Orchestra and Bay Colony Brass (where he is the Operations/Personnel Manager). He is a former member of the Syracuse Symphony, Lake George Opera, New Bedford Symphony, and Cape Ann Symphony, as well as trombonist and orchestra manager of Lowell House Opera, Commonwealth Opera, and MetroWest Opera. He is a regular reviewer forAmerican Record Guide, contributed to Classical Music: Listener’s Companion, and has written articles on music for the Elgar Society Journal and Positive Feedback Magazine. His fiction collection, The Audition and Other Stories, includes a novella about a trombonist preparing for and taking a major orchestra audition (English Hill Press, 2013).

1 Schumann had other motives for that article, many perhaps self serving.

2 Some early authorities claim the idea of writing a symphony preceded that of the two-piano sonata.

3 In an earlier account, after hearing the dual-piano work, Grimm suggested turning it into a concerto, though a letter to Clara seems to verify the dream account. Some claim that Brahms carried the sonata’s (slow) movement to the concerto, which seems unlikely.

4 One of the work’s late champions was conductor/pianist Hans von Bulow, who once mockingly characterized Brahms as another William Sterndale-Bennet but later coined the “three Bs” for Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms.

Read about Brahms Symphony No. 2