The Kennedy Center

Concerto in A minor for Violin, Cello and Orchestra, Op. 102

About the Work

National Symphony Orchesra Composer Portraits - Johannes Brahms Composer: Johannes Brahms
© Richard Freed

Brahms composed his Double Concerto in the summer of 1887 for the violinist Joseph Joachim and the cellist Robert Hausmann, who gave the first performance at a private concert in Baden-Baden on September 23 of that year and the public premiere less than a month later (October 18) in Cologne, with Brahms conducting on both occasions. Hans Kindler conducted the National Symphony Orchestra's first performance of this work, on March 31, 1941, with the violinist Antonio Brosa and the cellist Raya Garbousova as soloists; Leonard Slatkin conducted the most recent ones, with the violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and the cellist Lynn Harrell, on September 19, 20 and 21, 2002.

In addition to the two solo instruments, the score calls for flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons in pairs, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings. Approximate duration, 32 minutes.

While Brahms was by no means unique in composing such a concerto for two solo instruments, his is the one that has become known as"the Double Concerto," just as Beethoven's final symphony is"the Ninth." The Double Concerto was Brahms's very last work for orchestra, and it may be regarded as one of his most personal, as it was motivated by his eagerness to repair a damaged friendship with the great violinist who had been among his closest friends for nearly three decades.

Joseph Joachim (1831-1907) was by any measure one of the most illustrious musicians of his time. He is remembered primarily as a violinist and teacher of violinists, but he was active also as a composer and conductor and teacher. He was only eleven years old when he came from his native Hungary to Leipzig in 1843 to enroll in Felix Mendelssohn's newly founded Conservatory. His talent was already so evident that Mendelssohn decreed that there was nothing left to teach him, and his"instruction" consisted mainly of their playing chamber music together. In the following year, before the boy reached the age of 13, Mendelssohn took him to London, where they performed trios with a young cellist from Cologne named Jacques Offenbach and where, with Mendelssohn conducting, Joachim gave the local premiere of the Beethoven Violin Concerto—the performance credited with establishing that masterwork at last in the repertory. Subsequently Joachim served as Liszt's concertmaster in Weimar, but he formally separated himself from Liszt and his philosophy of music, and formed a friendship with Robert Schumann. He met Brahms in Hanover in 1853, and provided him with introductions to both Liszt and Schumann. He conducted the premieres of Brahms's First Piano Concerto and his First Serenade, and Brahms composed his famous Violin Concerto and other works for him. Joachim became director of the Hochschule für ausübende Tonkunst in Berlin in 1868, and in the following year organized a string quartet that became the most respected such ensemble of its time; he continued to lead both the school and the quartet until his death in 1907. Numerous other composers besides Brahms wrote works for Joachim, and more than a few of the most admired violinists of the first half of the twentieth century came to him for lessons.

Brahms and Joachim shared an esthetic outlook, and their close friendship was productive for both of them as musicians. In 1880, however (the year after he introduced the Violin Concerto Brahms composed for him), Joachim initiated divorce proceedings against his wife—the mezzo-soprano Amalie Weiss, whom he had married in 1863—and charged that he was not the father of the last of their six children. Clara Schumann supported his suit, but Brahms took the lady's side, and his testimony in court was a factor in the rendering of a decision in her favor. Joachim, understandably enough, cooled toward Brahms, who was severely distressed by the loss of his friendship. After a half-dozen years he decided to try for a rapprochement by composing a new work for Joahim—who, separating his personal feelings from his artistic responsibilities, had never cut back on his performances of Brahms's music.

The work Brahms created for this purpose contained a solo part for Robert Hausman, the cellist of the Joachim Quartet, equal in importance to the one for Joachim himself. Brahms very likely felt that if he had composed a work for Joachim alone the obviousness of his gesture might have caused embarrassment, and might even caused Joachim to reject it, while the inclusion of the violinist's esteemed colleague would compel him to accept. It is possible, too, that the two solo parts—two strong voices, each asserting itself but never losing sight of its essentially collaborative role—were meant to symbolize the friendship Brahms wished to revive. In any event, when the score was published, early in 1888, he sent the first copy to Joachim, with the inscription,"To him for whom it was written."

The Concerto had by then accomplished its therapeutic mission, but the public was not enthusiastic about the work, and neither were such friends of Brahms as the pianist Clara Schumann and the influential music critic Eduard Hanslick. Even Joachim himself at first thought more of the peace-making gesture than of the music itself, though he subsequently developed a strong feeling for the work. The popularity the Double Concerto now enjoys was slow in coming, and it did not come in Brahms's lifetime, or in Joachim's.

In our time, of course, it can only seem incredible that listeners in any period could have resisted the appeal of the work's strong themes, bold rhythms and darkly handsome coloring. The first movement, fiercely dramatic at the outset, casts the cello in a particularly vigorous role and provides ample dialogue between the two soloists as well as exchanges between them and the orchestra. There are double-stops aplenty for both soloists as they discourse on the two principal themes—one stark and angular, the other gently lyrical.

The slow movement is utterly characteristic of Brahms, its sentiment unconcealed yet infused with great dignity. Walter Niemann, in his biography of the composer, characterized this Andante as"a great ballade, steeped in the rich, mysterious tone of a northern evening atmosphere."
Earthy good humor and unreserved vigor prevail in the final movement, the last of Brahms's great Hungarian-flavored rondos. Here too, by way of contrast, are pages of unabashed tenderness and great warmth of heart, set off in lambent sunset hues so fitting to the valedictory gesture this work proved to be for Brahms as a composer of orchestral music.