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Brahms: Violin Concerto

Brahms: Violin Concerto


670 words
program notes by Chris Myers

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Copyright © 2013 Chris Myers. All rights reserved. Unauthorized distribution or reproduction prohibited.

Violin Concerto in D major, op. 77
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
solo violin, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings

Composed 1878. First performance: January 1, 1879, Leipzig. Joseph Joachim, violin. Johannes Brahms, conductor. 

I. Allegro non troppo
II. Adagio
III. Allegro giocoso, ma non troppo vivace

Art is a republic… Don’t regard one artist as “higher” and demand that “lesser” artists look upon him as their consul. Through his works, he may eventually be regarded as a beloved and respected citizen of this republic, but never a consul or emperor.
— Johannes Brahms to Clara Schumann, 14 June 1858

When exploring the music of Johannes Brahms, it soon becomes apparent that his egalitarian ideals with regard to musicians weren’t restricted merely to public esteem or critical regard. They influenced his entire conception of how musicians interact with each other, particularly as soloists. His instrumental sonatas have long been noted for the partnership they require between the soloist and pianist, to the point where his first cello sonata is actually titled “Sonata for Piano and Cello”, with the “accompanist” given top billing.

This equal partnership between soloist and ensemble is on full display in his Violin Concerto. Unlike most concerti, this is not a piece wherein the orchestra serves as mere backdrop for a stunning display of virtuosic fireworks. Rather, the violinist and orchestra are a team, collaborating and interacting to recount an elegant and nuanced musical drama.

This reduced role of the soloist (or is it an increased role for the accompanist? All things are relative…) has not always sat well with violinists and critics. Numerous musicians, noting the demanding technical aspects of the piece, have been credited with remarking that the work is “a concerto not so much for the violin as against the violin”, and countless others have referred to it as “unplayable”. Pablo de Sarasate, the 19th century violin virtuoso, famously refused to play the piece, saying “I don’t want to stand there, violin in hand, and listen to the oboe playing the only melody in the adagio.”

With all the attention it receives, you’d think that Brahms’ concerto was the first to explore such a collaborative relationship between soloist and orchestra. In fact, the work is clearly inspired by the monumental violin concerto of his idol, Ludwig van Beethoven. The pieces are not only composed in the same key (D major) and share a similar role for the soloist, but they bear striking similarities in structure and form, right down to the unusual way in which the timpani accompanies the soloist’s first entrance. The concerto’s first audience could not help but be aware of this connection—Joseph Joachim, the soloist at the premiere, performed the Beethoven concerto immediately prior to Brahms’ new work on the program.

The orchestra begins the piece with an extended exposition of melodic material, after which the violin finally enters, accompanied by timpani and cellos. The orchestra takes up fragments of the new theme introduced by the violin, and they continue to trade material back and forth throughout the rest of the movement. This movement is notable for its improvised cadenza: Brahms’ violin concerto is the last major concerto to ask that the soloist create their own cadenza. On tonight’s performance, Ms. Kosakovskaya will be performing the cadenza composed by Joachim himself.

As noted in Sarasate’s complaint, the second movement is led, not by the violin, but by the oboe. The violin eventually enters, providing a lyrical and ornamented commentary on the melodic material. We encounter a brief turbulent storm before returning to the gentle lyricism of the opening.

As a finale, Brahms gives the violinist an opportunity to present an energetic rondo with more than a hint of the Gypsy about it. The movement presents numerous technical demands on the soloist, with its rhythmic complexity and abundance of double-stops. Numerous melodies enter and attempt to shift the mood, but the dance-like melody wins out, concluding the work in a gesture of ebullient joy.

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