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Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 77

About the Work

Johannes Brahms
Quick Look Composer: Johannes Brahms
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Christoph Eschenbach, conductor / Leonidas Kavakos, violin, plays Brahms Nov. 17 - 19, 2011
© Paul Horsley

In addition to being Europe's leading violinist of the second half of the 19th century, Joseph Joachim was also one of Brahms's closest friends and musical colleagues. Brahms could conceive of no other soloist for his Violin Concerto. A formidable composer in his own right, Joachim had also championed Brahms's music early on, not least as first violinist of the Joachim Quartet, which introduced a number of his chamber works. But he was best known as a brilliant violin soloist. Because Brahms was primarily a pianist, during the inception of the Violin Concerto he apparently relied upon Joachim's suggestions as to the limitations and possibilities of the violin, and perhaps even as to the work's structure.

In 1876 Brahms finally finished his First Symphony, which had occupied him for more than 20 years. This long-awaited work was something of a watershed in the 43-year-old composer's creative life, and its completion unleashed in Brahms an unprecedented outpouring of masterpieces during the next three years. The most significant of these were the Second Symphony and the Violin Concerto, completed within a few months of one another.

The Violin Concerto was begun in the summer of 1878, at the composer's favorite resort at Pörtschach am Wörthersee in the Carinthian Alps. Many commentators have imagined they heard something of this idyllic natural landscape in the gentle triple meter of both the Concerto and the Second Symphony.

In October Brahms wrote to Joachim that he had "stumbled" in the middle of composing the adagio and scherzo of what was initially conceived as a four-movement work. The next month he wrote that "the middle movements have fallen out; naturally they were the best! I have replaced them with a poor adagio." Though the Violin Concerto's incomparable slow movement is anything but "poor," we can only be curious as to why this four-movement plan - taken up that same year, with considerable success, for the Second Piano Concerto in B-flat - was abandoned for this Concerto.

Though Joachim received the finalized solo part only on December 12, he prepared and played the Concerto's premiere just weeks later - on January 1, 1879, at Leipzig's Gewandhaus with the composer conducting. It was a moderate, if not overwhelming, success. The Viennese performance on January 14 was apparently more auspicious, though Brahms later noted in a letter to Joachim that the orchestral players "wanted rather to hear you than to play their own notes. At their desks they were always looking sideways - quite fatal, though understandable." This Viennese performance was also notable for the fact that Joachim's cadenza - which Brahms had left for the violinist to compose - received spontaneous applause, even before the movement had ended. "The cadenza went so magnificently at our concert here," wrote Brahms to his friend Elisabet von Herzogenberg, "that the people clapped right on into my coda." This celebrated cadenza, later published, has become the standard choice for most violinists, in the absence of one by the composer himself. 

The Concerto's first movement (Allegro non troppo) is especially rich in themes, beginning with the lilting opening subject in bassoons, horns, and lower strings, and continuing with the flowing subsequent theme for oboe. It is the explosive closing subject that remains uppermost in our memories, however, leading (in its first appearance) to the soloist's dramatic entrance. At several points in the movement, Beethoven's Violin Concerto of the same key seems to lurk just around the corner. (Joachim was considered the foremost interpreter of the Beethoven Concerto during his lifetime.) The slow movement is a brief, humble Adagio based on an almost folk-like tune; the simplicity is deceptive, for Brahms reworked the movement many times before it satisfied him. The finale (Allegro giocoso, ma non troppo vivace), with its touches of the alla zingarese ("gypsy") vein, is imbued with all the play and ferocity of the parallel movement of Beethoven's Concerto.