The Kennedy Center

Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15

About the Work

National Symphony Orchesra Composer Portraits - Johannes Brahms Composer: Johannes Brahms
© Thomas May

Brahms has an elusive quality that can be at odds with the impression of solid, granitic majesty often evoked by his orchestral music. Shy but enormously ambitious, he was only 20 when Robert Schumann perceived in him the genius for a new generation. Yet having arrived early on the scene, Brahms was in some ways a late bloomer, maturing over decades into the patriarchal, leonine, bearded icon that has become so familiar. This delay resulted from the struggles occasioned by a keen sense of having been born too late. He eventually overcame this by reinvigorating the traditions he inherited. Brahms gave new life to these traditions, for the most part based on "abstract" music, by developing a language as intensely expressive and emotionally involving as his peers who veered in the "progressive" direction of program music that was inspired by extra-musical sources. The situation of belatedness in Brahms -- of possessing a sensibility out of sync with the time in which he lived -- has acquired a new-found relevance in the postmodern era.

Yet Brahms was self-conscious about how to approach the traditions he revered -- self-conscious above all in his desire to assume the mantle of Beethoven. He famously waited until he was 43 to present his first symphony to the world. But the composer had harbored a symphonic ambition since the early days when he first won recognition. These Brahms channeled into the massive, quasi-symphonic achievement that is his First Piano Concerto. Schumann was well aware of this ambition when he described the young Brahms's piano sonatas as "veiled symphonies." The First Piano Concerto itself evolved from a sonata planned for two pianos.

In the spring of 1854 Brahms had traveled to Cologne to hear his first performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. This pivotal encounter would not only resound in his own First Symphony decades later but left its traces on the sonata-in-progress (in the same key as the D minor Ninth). Apparently at some point Brahms considered orchestrating the sonata into a full-scale symphony but then sidestepped into a quasi-symphonic alternative. By 1856 he began recalibrating his sketches in the form of a concerto for piano. Brahms had also recently embarked on what would be his lifelong friendship with the Hungarian violinist, conductor, and champion of his music, Joseph Joachim, pressing him for advice about the new plan of action and asking him to be candid about "even your most trivial thoughts and reservations." Joachim obliged, and thus ensued for Brahms an agonizing period of several years of wrestling the music down.

A repetitive cycle alternating between doubt and encouragement led to continual revisions, second guesses, and obsession over the minutest detail of scoring. At last in early 1859 Brahms was willing to introduce his First Piano Concerto to the public -- performing as soloist and with Joachim at the podium -- but its premiere a few days later in Leipzig was a fiasco that scarred the composer and reinforced his sense of caution (it would take him more than two decades to write another concerto for piano). "At the end," he plaintively wrote Joachim (the Leipzig performance was led by a different conductor), "three pairs of hands attempted to applaud but were quickly stopped by unmistakable hissing all around." Brahms went on to take a stoic view of the negative reception -- "It forces you to gather your thoughts and increases your courage" -- and made some further revisions to the score.

Lurking in the background of this concerto, beyond the Beethoven factor, there is also a Schumann factor. Brahms had developed deep emotional bonds with both Robert and his pianist-composer wife Clara, who provided essential encouragement to the young composer. Schumann had given his career a famous boost in his 1853 article declaring that the 20-year-old Brahms had arrived already fully developed and was clearly "one of the elect." But the younger composer's close connection to the couple soon reached a crisis point early on when Robert attempted suicide in 1854 and was confined in an asylum (where he died two years later). The extraordinary turbulence of this period -- including the conflicting feelings occasioned by Brahms's emotional attachment to Clara -- left an inexorable mark. This, along with the ambitious mandate Brahms had undertaken in composing the First Piano Concerto, contributes to the work's sense of urgency.

The first movement is of vast proportions. For all Brahms's self-conscious qualms, the fertility of imagination it exhibits is astonishing -- as is the confidence with which he executes his ideas. Each listener has a personal catalog of beautiful details or factors that invite particular admiration: the furious trills embedded in the first theme, transforming a decorative gesture into charged sparks of energy; the unexpectedly calm entrance of the soloist; the proliferation of thematic ideas that are organically connected and thus reinforce an underlying unity; or the horn solo that emerges so inevitably at the end of the exposition, among countless other touches. (Brahms's preoccupation with such details continues to pay dividends.)

Extremes define this movement. It encompasses both the titanic, elemental landscape of the opening theme (in which the fresh impressions of Beethoven's Ninth are obvious and yet converted into something new) and the reflective lyricism represented in the one theme that the piano gets to introduce before the orchestra takes it over. Somehow Brahms holds these countervailing tendencies in a persuasive balance. As for the rapport between soloist and orchestra, he conceives of their sonorities on a symphonic scale, integrating them in ways that add a new dimension to the virtuosity required of the soloist: Notice, for example, the astonishing amplitude that the piano acquires at the moment of recapitulation.

The first movement's gamut, from raw power to lyrical introspection, also informs the Concerto as a whole. The D major Adagio counterbalances the immense force preceding it with a meditative calm that makes for one of the most elevating slow movements in Brahms's orchestral music. A series of exchanges between orchestra and soloist leads to a slow but exquisite cadenza for the latter where those all-important trills from the first movement reappear, now tamed and ecstatic. Meanwhile, wonderful touches for the orchestra abound -- in the deployment of the woodwinds, or in Brahms's surprising use of the timpani in the Adagio's final moments.

The finale has a brusque, even baroque momentum all its own. Its syncopated articulation clashes wonderfully against the rapidfire accompaniment, leaving its mark, too, on the sweeping second theme. Along with the Beethoven of the Ninth mentioned in regard to the first movement, Brahms invokes the example of the finale from that composer's Third Piano Concerto -- without ever sounding imitative. Toward the end, we get a generous offering of two cadenzas through which Brahms steers the movement into the major and revs the concerto to its fiery conclusion.