Brahms – Violin Concerto in D-Major, Op.77

by Max Derrickson

Johannes Brahms  (b Hamburg, 7 May 1833; Vienna, 3 April 1897)

Violin Concerto in D-Major, Op.77


During the summers of 1877 and 1878, Johannes Brahms wrote three important works while residing in the idyllic countryside of Pörtschach on the Wörthersee: the Symphony No. 2, the Violin Concerto, and the Violin Sonata No. 1. Many scholars have commented on the endearing nature of these three works, which share a certain life-breath and gentle ease. These qualities had not until then been hallmarks of Brahms’ major works, particularly not in his Piano Concerto No. 1 and his Symphony No. 1.

In 1853 Brahms met Joseph Joachim, the formidable violin virtuoso and conductor who became his lifelong friend. But it took 25 years of cajoling from Joachim before Brahms composed the Violin Concerto. Joachim edited and premiered the work, with Brahms conducting, on New Year’s Day 1879. The critics did not receive the new work kindly, probably because of its extraordinary length and breadth. Though symphonies in the late 19th Century were expected to push these limits (consider Bruckner’s symphonies), not so with concertos. This one lasts 45 minutes—some 15-20 longer than audiences were accustomed to—and Brahms’ formal and thematic treatment are more symphonic than concerto-like. The piece also baffled the public with its unprecedented complexity. One critic called it a “concerto versus the violin.” Despite its inauspicious reception, however, the concerto has become a gem in the concert hall.

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Originally, Brahms wrote two middle movements for this concerto (further evidence of its symphonic character), but soon abandoned them for this definitive form of a single, central Adagio. Ever modest and self-effacing, Brahms termed it his “feeble adagio,” but it is far from feeble. It begins tenderly and remains a love song, as the oboe plays the long, beautiful main theme, and then pauses to let the violin wander elegantly off with it. The great violinist Pablo de Sarasate, a critic of the concerto, peevishly remarked that he had no desire to perform a movement where he had to “listen, violin in hand, to how the oboe plays the only melody in the whole piece.”

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