Born in Hamburg, Germany, on May 7, 1833, Brahms was the great master of symphonic and sonata style in the second half of the 19th century. He can be viewed as the protagonist of the Classical tradition of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. He died on April 3, 1897 - via
His father was a double bassist in the Hamburg Philharmonic Society, and the young Brahms began playing piano at the age of seven.
By the time he was a teenager, Brahms was already an accomplished musician, and he used his talent to earn money at local inns, in brothels and along the city's docks to ease his family's often tight financial conditions.
In 1853 Brahms was introduced to the renowned German composer and music critic Robert Schumann. The two men quickly grew close, with Schumann seeing in his younger friend great hope for the future of music. He dubbed Brahms a genius and praised the "young eagle" publicly in a famous article. The kind words quickly made the young composer a known entity in the music world.
But this music world was also at a crossroads. Modernist composers like Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner, the leading faces of the "New German School" rebuked the more traditional sounds of Schumann. Theirs was a sound predicated on organic structure and harmonic freedom, drawing from literature for its inspiration.
For Schumann and eventually Brahms, this new sound was sheer indulgence and negated the genius of composers like Johann Sebastian Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven. - via
Stubborn and uncompromising, Brahms was also known to be brusque and sarcastic with adults. With children, he showed a softer side, often handing out penny candy to kids he encountered in his neighborhood in Vienna. He also enjoyed nature and frequently went for long walks in the woods.
The composer's later years saw him living a comfortable life. His music, since 1860 anyway, had sold well, and Brahms, far from flamboyant or excessive, lived a frugal life in his simple apartment. A shrewd investor, Brahms did well in the stock market. His wealth, however, was rivaled by his generosity, as Brahms often gave money to friends and young musical students. - via
The Violin Concerto
The concerto follows the standard
form, with three movements in the pattern quick–slow–quick:
giocoso, ma non troppo vivace — Poco più
The work was premiered in
on January 1, 1879, by Joachim, who insisted on opening the concert with the
, written in the same key, and closing with the Brahms. Joachim's decision could be understandable, though Brahms complained that "it was a lot of D major—and not much else on the program." Joachim was not presenting two established works, but one established one and a new, difficult one by a composer who had a reputation for being difficult. The two works also share some striking similarities. For instance, Brahms has the violin enter with the timpani after the orchestral introduction: this is a clear homage to Beethoven, whose violin concerto also makes unusual use of the timpani.
Brahms conducted the premiere. Various modifications were made between then and the work's publication by
later in the year.
Critical reaction to the work was mixed: the canard that the work was not so much for violin as "against the violin" is attributed equally to conductor
, to whom Brahms entrusted the Vienna premiere, which was however rapturously received by the public.
called the work "unplayable", and the violin virtuoso
refused to play it because he didn't want to "stand on the rostrum, violin in hand and listen to the oboe playing the only tune in the adagio."
Against these critics, modern listeners often feel that Brahms was not really trying to produce a conventional vehicle for virtuoso display; he had higher musical aims. Similar criticisms have been voiced against the string concerti of other great composers, such as
, for making the soloist "almost part of the orchestra."
The Performer: Joseph Joachim
Born in 1831 to a Hungarian-Jewish family, Joseph Joachim was a child prodigy who became one of the great violinists of the 19th century. At age 12, he made his London solo debut playing
with none other than Mendelssohn leading the orchestra. Through subsequent performances, the young virtuoso all but single-handedly revived this long-forgotten masterpiece. Even from a young age, Joachim became renowned for playing with complete faithfulness to a score while also creating the illusion of improvisation, almost as if he were channeling the spirit of a composer. A 14-year-old Brahms witnessed his remarkable performance style when he first saw Joachim perform Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in 1848. Later Brahms confessed to Joachim: “I reckoned the concerto to be your own… I was certainly your most enraptured listener.”
Videos of the Brahms Violin Concerto