The Kennedy Center

Double Concerto

About the Work

National Symphony Orchesra Composer Portraits - Johannes Brahms Composer: Johannes Brahms
© Dr. Richard E. Rodda

Johannes Brahms first met the violinist Joseph Joachim in 1853, and they immediately became close friends and musical allies-the Violin Concerto was written for Joachim in 1878 and benefited from his careful advice in many matters of string technique, and he was a faithful champion of Brahms' music, playing it on every possible occasion and doing much to help establish the young composer's reputation across the continent. In 1880, however, when Joachim was suing his wife for divorce over an alleged infidelity, Brahms took it upon himself to meddle in the family's domestic affairs, believing that Frau Joachim was innocent of the charges and siding with her. Joachim was, understandably, enraged, and he broke off his personal relationship with Brahms, though he continued to play his music; the two did not speak for years.

On July 19, 1887, when he was 54, Brahms, a curmudgeonly bachelor who found it difficult to make friends, sent Joachim a terse postcard from Thun, Switzerland, where the composer was summering that year: "I should like to send you some news of an artistic nature which I heartily hope might more or less interest you." Joachim replied immediately: "I hope that you are going to tell me about a new work, for I have read and played your latest works with real delight." Brahms sent his news:

          Your friendly message makes my confession all the more pleasant! But be       prepared for a little shock. I have been unable to resist the ideas that have been occurring to me for a concerto for violin and cello, much as I have tried to talk myself out of it.

Now, the only thing that really interests me about this is the question of what your attitude toward it may be. Above all, I beg you, with heartfelt friendliness not to be embarrassed about your opinion. If you send me a card which simply says: "Not interested," that will be quite sufficient for me, and I shall know what to do.

If not, I shall start asking questions: Would you like to see a copy of it? I am in the middle of copying the solo parts; would you and Hausmann [Brahms had hoped from the beginning that the soloists in the premiere would be Joachim and Robert Hausmann, the cellist in Joachim's quartet] take the trouble to see if they are playable? Would you consider trying the work over somewhere with Hausmann and me at the piano, and later in whatever town you prefer, with an orchestra and ourselves?

Joachim agreed to Brahms' proposals. On July 26th Brahms sent him the solo parts and asked for his advice. Five days later the violinist replied, "Herewith I am posting you the parts with some proposed minor alterations with which I hope you will agree. It is very playable, generally. What's to be done now? Hausmann and I are most anxious to get on with it." As he had with the Violin Concerto, Brahms accepted only a few of Joachim's suggestions, though he did rework some passages on his own after the violinist had pointed out their difficulties. Brahms had a fair copy of the score and parts made, arranged to have the formal premiere given by the Gürzenich Orchestra in Cologne in October, and he sent a letter to his old friend Clara Schumann in Baden-Baden bringing her up to date:

          I have some queer news to tell you about myself. I have had the happy notion of writing a concerto for fiddle and cello. If it is a success we shall have great fun with it ... [though] I might have left the idea to someone else who understands fiddles better than I do. (Unfortunately Joachim has given up composing.) It is quite a different thing writing for instruments whose character and sound one can only incidentally imagine than for an instrument which one knows thoroughly-as I do the piano.

Clara reassured him concerning his ability to compose for strings ("In my opinion, anyone who has written such symphonies, such sonatas for violin and cello, may be said to understand the capacity of the instruments, to have discovered their hidden secrets"), and volunteered her home as the site of the rehearsals. The principals gathered there on September 21st, and they spent two days polishing the score and becoming familiar with its details. Joachim and Hausmann tried out the piece with the Kurhaus Orchestra on the 23rd; Brahms conducted. The three gave the public premiere in Cologne on October 18th. The work, Brahms' last for orchestra, was given a cool reception; even Joachim, Clara and that staunch journalistic Brahmsian, the Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick, expressed some measure of disappointment in it. Joachim (who later changed his opinion of the piece) and Hausmann, however, played it whenever they could be jointly engaged for a concert, and won for it a certain acceptance into the repertory. The Double Concerto has never enjoyed the popularity of Brahms' other works in the form, though this fact has probably more to do with the logistical (and financial) difficulties involved in employing two soloists than in any musical deficiencies. Concerning the personal relationship between the composer and the violinist, however, the work was an unqualified success. Clara noted with pleasure in her diary that "this Concerto was in a way a work of reconciliation-Joachim and Brahms have spoken to each other again after years of silence."

It has been asserted that the Double Concerto is Brahms' renewal of the old 18thcentury concerto grosso, the form in which a small group of two or more soloists was pitted against the orchestral ensemble. However, Brahms, who was very knowledgeable about older music, never mentioned such an influence on the Concerto, and its style and construction bear no resemblance to the Baroque form other than in its instrumentation. In all important respects, this work is a Romantic concerto for twin soloists written in the style of thorough, symphony-like integration of orchestra and soloists that Brahms had perfected in his three earlier essays in the genre. He admitted some difficulties in finding a satisfactory balance between the violin and cello in terms of tone color, range and carrying power, but solved them with admirable skill, in part by keeping the orchestra somewhat restrained in its contributions. (Brahms systematically destroyed the sketches for all of his works, so that little is known of his methods of composition.) The Concerto, rich in harmony, elaborate in counterpoint and filled with melody, is a product of Brahms' fullest maturity, imbued with the burnished autumnal glow that marks the masterworks of his later years.

The opening movement largely follows Classical concerto-sonata form, though it is prefaced with a bold paragraph introducing the soloists. The orchestra's first attempt at announcing the main theme is brusquely interrupted by a recitative from the cello. The woodwinds then preview the complementary theme, which is taken up by the unaccompanied violin, who engages the cello in arpeggiated dialogue as the bridge to the full orchestral presentation of the movement's melodic material. The main theme, given by the entire orchestra, is a somber but majestic strain which mixes duple and triple rhythms in Brahms' characteristic manner. The second theme, a tender, sighing phrase introduced by the woodwind choir, is intentionally reminiscent of a melody in Viotti's A minor Violin Concerto, a work and composer both Brahms and Joachim held in high esteem. The soloists then join the orchestra for their elaborated re-presentation of the themes. A development section (begun by the soloists in unison) and a full recapitulation and coda round out the structure of this deeply satisfying and richly expressive movement.

Two quiet summons from horns and woodwinds mark the beginning of the Andante. The principal theme of the movement's three-part form is a warmly lyrical melody for violin and cello in unison; parallel harmonies in the woodwinds usher in the central section. In his biography of the composer, Walter Niemann called this movement "most lovely ... a great ballade steeped in the rich, mysterious tone of a northern evening atmosphere."

The finale is a playful rondo heavily influenced by the melodic leadings and vibrant rhythms of Gypsy music. Wrote the eminent English musicologist Sir Donald Tovey, "It is the privilege of works in sonata form that they can, without weakening or falsifying tragic issues, bring finales to a happy ending. The tragedy of the first movement has been told without flinching, but told within the quarter of an hour that contains symphonic movements on a large scale. Within that quarter of an hour we have not time to see enough of the world in which such tragedies take place; and we are allowed to see its glorious melodies, its humours, and its capacities for happiness, in the other movements. And so the whole Concerto leads up to the wonderful tenderness of this last page which finally breaks into joyful triumph, and brings the great work to an end."