Brahms: Violin Concerto

In 1853, the 22-year-old violinist Joseph Joachim was invited by Robert Schumann, then nearing the end of his life, to play the Beethoven violin concerto at the Lower Rhine Music Festival. There, he met a 20-year-old Johannes Brahms, and the two immediately formed an intense bond. On Joachim’s playing, Brahms wrote that he “shows the intense fire…which predicts the artist,” while Joachim described his new friend as “pure as a diamond, soft as snow,” and would later say, of his first hearing the young Brahms’ piano compositions, that “Never in the course of my artist’s life have I been more completely overwhelmed.”

Twenty-five years after that first meeting, their friendship would produce one of the great collaborations of classical music: Brahms’ (and, to a large extent, Joachim’s) Violin Concerto. In August of 1878, Brahms told Joachim that a few violin passages would be coming in the mail. They went back and forth arguing the merits of passages technically, with Joachim, not Brahms, writing all of the fingering and bowing indications, as well as contributing a cadenza. The negotiations continued even after the concerto was technically finished: it was Joachim who insisted on programming the premiere with the Beethoven concerto performed first (“A lot of D major,” was Brahms’ verdict on that programming choice), and the violinist made further edits in between the premiere and the score going to publication.

As a young man Brahms was intimidated by the figure of Beethoven, and avoided writing a symphony until he was forty-three to keep out of his shadow. By the time he and Joachim produced the concerto, however, he had gotten over his nervousness of the inevitable comparison, and in fact actively embraced it. The similarities with the Beethoven concerto would have been evident at the premiere, being as they were played back-to-back, in the same key and with the same opening structure of the orchestral exposition being followed by an exposition for the violin. Although the piece’s initial reception was lukewarm (perhaps the audience was distracted by the fact that Brahms, conducting the piece, had forgotten to change out of his grey street trousers or fasten his suspenders) Brahms knew the value of the piece. “It is well to be doubted whether I could write a better concerto,” he wrote to his publisher, acknowledging in his typical self-deprecating fashion that the violin concerto features among his, and his best friend’s, finest work of their lives.