Brahms: Violin Concert in D major, Op 77
Few composers from the Romantic Era felt the weight of the great German musical tradition as heavily as did Johannes Brahms. This is certainly true when we contemplate his string quartets and his symphonies which hearken back to the "classic" models of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. So imposing was this legacy that Brahms reputedly destroyed as many as a dozen quartets before releasing his first one, and his first symphony was not performed and published until he was well over 50 years old. As if to emphasize the point, the great pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow christened Brahm's first symphony as “Beethoven's Tenth” when it first came out.
One can also detect some of the same kind of apprehension in Brahms' Violin Concerto in D major which, in so many respects, follows the fabled example of Beethoven's sole concerto for the same instrument. Although Brahms had been close friends with the great Hungarian violinist Joseph Joachim for many years, he was not able to summon up the courage to write his concerto for the instrument until the age of 55. And when Brahms finally accomplished the task, he could not have made his indebtedness to the older German master more obvious. Among other points, both concertos share the same key, and their first movements are equally long (lasting the better part of 20 minutes) and have similarly serene main themes. Beethoven did not write a first-movement cadenza and neither did Brahms, who left the task to Joachim. The second movements of both works are very slow indeed and begin with simple chordal orchestral introductions. When the violin does enter, it does so in largely decorative fashion, mostly filling in a long melody with slow sixteenth note runs. The finales too share a similarly rustic dance-like atmosphere.
The composition of the solo violin part of Brahms' Concerto was very much a collaborative effort. In composing the work especially for Joachim, Brahms was doubly conscious of the fact that his own violin writing was not as idiomatic as his piano writing. Joachim, who was the greatest violin virtuoso of his time as well as a composer of note, was also very aware of this limitation and readily lent his hand throughout the course of the compositional process, tirelessly helping Brahms fine-tune many of the more virtuosic passages so that they would be more effective and at the same time fall more comfortably under the hand.
As one would expect, the final result was a staggeringly difficult but ultimately very effective work that, although it was very well received in Vienna, nonetheless had many opponents abroad who took exception to its overly symphonic nature and did their best to ensure that the work took its time before it would become fully established and rise to the pinnacle of the genre where it sits today. In its slow overall acceptance, it too followed Beethoven's example. Like Brahms' three other concertos, his Violin Concerto is vast in scope, and it is worth remembering that (like the Second Piano Concerto) the work was originally conceived for an even larger span of four movements, with a great deal of music discarded before the final version emerged.
As is true of the symphonies, the first movement of the concerto is by turns lyrical and very muscular. Unlike many virtuoso concertos of the time, the solo part is a little less showy than usual, and more integrated into the orchestral texture – although Brahms' skillful orchestration somehow ensures that the soloist rarely gets swallowed up by the ensemble. But in terms of sheer virtuoso flair, the finale, on the other hand, makes up for any lack of showmanship in the first movement. Perhaps it helps that it is also a Hungarian dance – a naturally virtuosic form of which Brahms, who was never averse to light entertainment, wrote many outstanding examples. Indeed, the winning combination of these two aspects – virtuosity and Hungarian flair – can only lead to the conclusion that, in addition to honouring the memory of the mighty Beethoven, Brahms was also pay tribute to his concerto's Hungarian dedicatee, who had been such an inspiration for so many years, and who did so much to help bring his towering masterpiece into the world. All the sadder, then, that the composer later saw fit to destroy what would have been a second violin concerto before it was able to see the light of day.