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Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 1

Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 1


780 words

program notes by Chris Myers

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Copyright © 2017 Chris Myers. All rights reserved. Unauthorized distribution or reproduction prohibited.

Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, op. 15
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings

Composed 1854-59. First public performance: 22 January 1859, Hannover. Johannes Brahms, piano. Hoftheater Hofkapelle cond. Joseph Joachim.

I. Maestoso
II. Adagio
III. Rondo: Allegro non troppo

Brahms spent his life struggling to emerge from Beethoven's shadow. Regular concertgoers are no doubt familiar with the story of this composer, so intimidated by the specter of the master’s greatness that more than half of his career would pass before he wrote his first symphony.

It wasn't Brahms’ fault, really.

When the bright-eyed young man arrived uninvited on Robert Schumann’s doorstep one sunny October day with a bag full of scores, he was just hoping to hear the older composer’s opinion of his music and perhaps receive a few lessons. But by the end of the month, Schumann had taken to the pages of the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik to declare Brahms the “Chosen One” — a messianic figure who would stand on the shoulders of Beethoven and lift the musical world to new heights.

That’s a lot of pressure on a twenty-year-old who had never written for orchestra.

Robert and his wife Clara mentored the composer, and the three developed a close and complex relationship. These happy days were short-lived, however. Five months after Brahms’ arrival, a suicide attempt sent Robert to the mental institution where he would remain the rest of his life.

Days later, Brahms heard Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony for the first time. Inspired and intimidated by this masterpiece, and with his fallen mentor’s exhortations fresh in his mind, the composer reviewed a two-piano sonata on which he’d been working and decided that it was actually the beginnings of a symphony. Over the following months, he sketched out the traditional four movements. Then the doubts set in.

The musical world eagerly anticipated the Chosen One’s first major work, and he didn’t want to disappoint. But Beethoven 9 echoed in his head, and this new piece was, to his ears, no worthy successor. (These doubts aren’t conjecture– we have over 20 letters Brahms wrote to friends fretting about details of the piece.) He discarded everything but the first movement, and the sonata that wanted to be a symphony became a piano concerto. Youthful confidence was gone, crushed by the pressure of impossible expectations. It would be twenty years before his first symphony finally emerged.

The resulting concerto, however, was the most expansive and ambitious audiences had yet encountered. From the opening moments, the influence of Beethoven 9 is clear: the same shimmering D minor tension, the same powerful orchestration… even a similarly fragmented melody on the verge of eruption. The symphonic aspirations extend to the role of the soloist, who is treated more as a partner with the orchestra than as a star. Only after the orchestra has presented nearly four and a half minutes of the explosive first theme does the soloist enter, not with a grand heroic gesture, but with a simple melody.

Writers have long speculated that the angst and dramatic mood shifts of this first movement were Brahms’ expression of the anguish his dear friend Robert was enduring, but his many letters provide little to corroborate this idea. Still, Brahms began the work only days after that terrible event, and he was deeply troubled to see his friend descend into madness. This view gains further credence when we consider that the original discarded second movement would later resurface as the mournful “Denn alles Fleisch, es ist wie Gras” in Das deutsches Requiem.

We apply biographical interpretations to the first movement at our own peril, but we’re on more solid ground with the second, a tenderly lyrical dialogue between piano and orchestra. Shortly after Robert died, Brahms wrote to Clara, “I’m painting a gentle portrait of you which is to become the Adagio.” In his handwritten score, Brahms added lyrics to the opening bars: “Benedictus qui venit in nomine domini” (“Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord”). Brahms had playfully nicknamed Schumann “Mynheer Domine” (a Dutch/Latin hybrid meaning “honored master”), adding layers of personal meaning and touching profundity to what seems at first a simple religious text.

In the driving energy of the final movement, Brahms takes rondo form well beyond its normal limits, infusing it with all the emotional weight of the opening movement and never allowing virtuosity to descend into superficial showmanship. The episodes demonstrate Brahms’ incredible technical skill, even venturing into a fugue before returning to the principal theme. The work ends as it began: with the grand drama worthy of a symphony.

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