These performances are Saturday, October 4th, at 8pm and again Sunday, October 5th, at 3pm. There’s also a pre-concert talk an hour before each concert.
Both “world-class artists” as well as friends, Kurt Nikkanen has played with the orchestra in the past, coming in from New York frequently to perform and teach at the State Street Academy of Music in Harrisburg. Daniel Gaisford, the Academy’s director, lives just outside Harrisburg when he’s not off performing himself (several times this past summer, he’d tell me “I’ll get back to you after these performances in New York” or “I’ll be playing in Italy next week, so we’ll talk later”). Just two weeks after the Brahms, he’ll be playing two sonatas for unaccompanied cello written for him by Michael Hersch who will also be present for the performances on Sunday, October 19th at the Academy’s St. Lawrence Chapel. Then the following month, Nikkanen and Gaisford will join with other friends to play chamber music at the chapel on Sunday, November 16th, a program that includes a Beethoven String Trio and Robert Schumann’s Piano Quartet.
--- --- ---
Update: As of Thursday, October 10th, Daniel Gaisford resigned as director of the State Street Academy. The Sunday afternoon concert series, he told me, has been canceled for the season.
--- --- ---
Almost forty years earlier, Robert Schumann had described Brahms’ three early piano sonatas as “veiled symphonies” and he and his wife, the pianist Clara Schumann, were soon urging the young man to take on the challenge of writing a symphony: that was the true test of genius.
But Brahms (pictured here at the age of 20 in a portrait made shortly after he'd met the Schumanns) didn’t want to “learn by doing,” and so he took the challenge quite seriously, becoming a perfectionist who destroyed all of his sketches, rough drafts and any works, completed ones as well as fragments, that he did not deem satisfactory for publication.
Whether or not it would have taken him 22 years to complete a first symphony if Schumann, as one of the leading music critics of the day, hadn’t hailed him as the Heir to Beethoven and anointed him music’s Messiah, it’s impossible to say. What he began in 1854 ended up turning itself into his D Minor Piano Concerto. Other, later attempts became the D Major Serenade, probably the F Minor Piano Quintet (eventually). At one point, he played for Clara Schumann and Joseph Joachim, two friends he often turned to for advice when working on a new piece, what became most of the C Minor Symphony’s first movement but it was 14 years until he figured out what to do with the last movement.
Premiered in provincial Karlsrühe, Brahms’ 1st Symphony was well-received, even if subsequent performances were respectful more than receptive, except Munich, which was Wagner’s town, where it was downright frigid.
When it arrived in Vienna, the audience was cool but respectful. Brahms could deal with that: in time, he felt, they would come to like it. He already had in mind another symphony, one that was ready to be premiered the following year and geared more toward Viennese tastes. A success there, when the 2nd Symphony was performed in Leipzig, their attitude was that it might be okay for Vienna which likes its music lighter, but here they expected more out a symphony than just pretty melodies. If the 1st had been called “Beethoven’s Tenth,” the 2nd was dubbed “Brahms’ Pastoral.”
Perhaps he felt a renewed confidence, after meeting the Symphonic Challenge: the next year, he completed the Violin Concerto, written especially for Joseph Joachim. One critic said it was a concerto against, not for the violin. Two years after that, he produced just two small overtures – the Academic Festival and the Tragic – but his 2nd Piano Concerto (“a symphony for orchestra with piano obligato”) was ready the following year. His readily acclaimed 3rd Symphony (quickly dubbed “Brahms’ Eroica”) came two years after the piano concerto; and the 4th Symphony, two years after that.
But with the 4th, there was a new creative crisis: Brahms was concerned how audiences would react to it. If the 1st was too intellectual for the Viennese, how would they react to the 4th which proved to be even too intellectual for his intellectual friends? He was very cautious about presenting the work to the public, even wondering whether he should publish it. After all the trepidation, its premiere was received with applause after each movement and a delirious ovation at the end.
Subsequent performances on a tour of over a dozen cities proved mostly less successful but not the disaster the composer feared. Three months later, Vienna received it respectfully, though Hans Richter’s “skimpy rehearsals” had made Brahms nervous. If there were no cheers at the end, there was no demonstration from “The Wagner Club” either, and Brahms was pleased with the performance. Hanslick, his staunchest defender in the press, was more reserved than usual, though, and that bothered the composer.
If it took a while for Brahms’ 4th to find its public acclaim, the symphony received no Beethoven-like nickname, this time, though later one critic would refer to the dark ending as the opposite of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, as if it were an Ode to Gloom. For many, it could not simply be an abstract symphony about nothing more than music and form. Later, some critics felt this tragic, seemingly pessimistic ending, led the way, as if the sign of the times had been tempered from the days of Beethoven’s 9th (premiered only sixty years earlier), to the darker, and often pessimistic symphonies by Gustav Mahler.
In this atmosphere, Brahms contemplated something a close friend had said, that “no artist could surpass himself after his 50th year.” Brahms was 52 when he finished the 4th and he wondered if that was the reason behind his new-found insecurity. If his career had been overshadowed by the seemingly incompletable 1st Symphony until its premiere in 1876, that meant Brahms really had barely a decade of creative self-assurance before the doubts came rolling back again.
In the two years between the 4th Symphony and the Double Concerto, Brahms was becoming more consciously aware of old friends. Clara Schumann was one of the most famous pianists of the day. Joseph Joachim was easily the greatest violinist the Germans had ever produced.
His ups-and-downs with his closest friends are well documented in their letters, something Brahms hated to write, could not write diplomatically when required to and which often left too much information to be supplied by the reader which frequently led to misunderstandings.
Brahms was brusque and often inconsiderate. Unaware how important concertizing was to Clara, he would write to her that if she needed money, he would gladly give her some so she could cut back on the touring to spend time with her children, not realizing performing for her was as necessary as breathing. She was livid. Trying to be humble when Joachim wanted to conduct his German Requiem at a festival dedicated to Robert Schumann’s memory, Brahms’ elliptical reply actually led Joachim to assume Brahms didn’t want the work performed there, which then led to further misunderstandings.
Over the years, his relationship with Joachim lessened after the violinist had gotten married and then became tenuous at times as the marriage began to sour. It snapped completely when she won the divorce case because of a letter Brahms had written to her supporting her side of the accusations of infidelity.
In 1886, he and Clara were essentially negotiating the return of each others letters. Clara was now 67 and in ill-health, concerned that perhaps their very personal correspondence would become fodder for a tabloid-minded society long before there were tabloids and papparazzi.
The following year, Brahms wrote to her that he had “the rather amusing idea of writing a concerto for violin and cello. If it is at all successful it might give us some fun. You can well imagine the sort of pranks one can play in such a case... I ought to have handed on the idea to someone who knows the violin better than I do...”
Flippancy aside, a typical way Brahms might use to introduce a new major work to his friends, the implication was that “someone” who knew the violin better than he did was his old friend Joseph Joachim. They had not been talking to each other for a few years, now, following a rather messy divorce during which Brahms had sided with his wife. Perhaps it would be a way they could be reconciled? That certainly seemed to be behind the piece.
But why not a 2nd Violin Concerto? He had written one the year after the 2nd Symphony especially for Joachim, a work that remains one of the “Top Two” concertos in the repertoire of today’s violinists, the other one being Beethoven’s.
... the Beethoven Violin Concerto (premiered in 1806)
... the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto (premiered in 1845), or
... the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto (written in 1878 but premiered in Vienna in 1881)?
Curiously, the Tchaikovsky concerto was composed the same year Brahms was writing his own concerto and it would later be receive its premiere not in Russia but in Vienna. In fact, Brahms’ friend Hanslick wrote in his (in)famous review that this was “music that stinks in the ear.”
Since the Beethoven was premiered by Franz Clement 25 years before Joachim was born, it must be the Mendelssohn, right?
Though he certainly performed the work during his career, Joachim did not premiere it: that honor went to Ferdinand David for whom it was composed, the concertmaster of the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig and a teacher at the school Mendelssohn founded there, then becoming his successor after Mendelssohn’s death a few years later. So if you guessed that, you’re close, but at this point, Brahms would not be handing out any cigars.
It was actually a work that Mendelssohn conducted for Joachim’s successful debut in London. It was also the first time the work had been “popularly” received. Until then, no one was playing it regularly (if at all) but after this historic and highly acclaimed performance, the Violin Concerto by Ludwig van Beethoven entered the standard repertoire. Not exactly the premiere but Joachim was responsible for its successful launch into the world.
At that performance, by the way, Joachim was one month shy of his 13th birthday!
Let me rephrase my question: “Why a concerto for violin AND CELLO”?
There were no real precedents in the repertoire and while Brahms was something of an antiquarian (collecting original manuscripts was a hobby of his and he edited and performed a great deal of music by composers even earlier than Bach, an interest even Clara Schumann couldn’t understand), why imitate models like the Bach Double Concerto for two violins or resurrect the old French formula of the symphonie concertante – the classical era’s answer to the Baroque concerto grosso – even excepting Mozart’s wonderful contribution for violin and viola?
Johannes Brahms, as a child, studied piano and composition. He also studied the cello, at least briefly: there’s an old story I haven’t been able to corroborate anywhere that the cello teacher absconded with the boy’s instrument. According to Jan Swafford, in his very human biography of Brahms, he played the cello well enough to manage a concerto by the Hamburg cellist, Bernhard Romberg (whose E Minor Cello Sonata was said to have been a considerable influence on Brahms’ 1st Cello Sonata in the same key, written when he was in his early-30s). When he was 18, Brahms was the pianist for a performance of a cello sonata he’d written, which like many of his earliest works, this too was subsequently destroyed.
It is interesting to mention this, hearing all those great themes Brahms composed for the cello. As someone who has a cello in his closet (quite literally), I’m thinking beyond the two cello sonatas, to the opening of the C Minor Piano Quartet’s slow movement, the song-like solo in the slow movement of the 2nd Piano Concerto or the big cello-section themes like the ones in the slow movement of the 2nd Symphony and the 2nd theme of the 4th Symphony’s opening movement.
So is it too much to infer, though I don’t think there’s anything in writing to prove it, that Brahms may have been thinking of himself as the cello to Joachim’s violin?
How does the work open? With the cello playing a long recitative-like statement, more cadenza than melody after a suggestion of what will be the main theme, answered, after a suggestion of the second theme-to-be in the winds, by the violinist, the cellist then tentatively joining in. This is musical conversation: once they have agreed to talk, the orchestra comes back in to present the main theme just like any ordinary concerto.
It’s not that personal associations aren’t unusual in his works. He is, first of all, a very private person as well as composer. But the famous use of the alp-horn theme he had sent to Clara, greeting her a thousnd times from the mountains and the valleys, not to mention the suggestion of Schumann’s old “Clara Theme” in the last movement of his 1st Symphony would be too much a coincidence for a composer as careful and architectural as Brahms.
There are other examples as well – cabalistic-like themes like one in the G Major String Sextet, carved out of notes spelling the first name of Agathe von Siebold, another of Brahms’ lost loves (he had gotten close enough to consider an engagement) which, at one point, is counterpointed with a motive A-D-E, spelling out the German word for “farewell.” It was written nostalgically six years after they parted: he had recently returned to her town and walked through the streets where they had once walked together.
In a song written for an old girl-friend, Brahms unfolded a simple tune that ran as counterpoint to an old Viennese ländler she used to sing to him when they were young and in love: so that “while Bertha was singing [her son] to sleep, a love-song is being sung to her.” Everyone knows the singer’s melody as Brahms’ Lullaby.
Perhaps the most direct use of such a personal message would be in the song Brahms had composed for Joseph and Amalie Joachim, on the birth of their son, Johannes, named after the composer. It is written for alto voice and piano with viola obligato (Amalie was an alto; Brahms a pianist; Joachim also played the viola) as if all the friends would be there together, whether playing and singing it or not. There’s also a quotation in the viola part: the old Christmas carol, “Josef lieber, Josef mein.” The composer was speaking directly to his dear old friend Joseph Joachim.
When Brahms was still a teenager, he was the pianist for a promising young Hungarian-born violinist then living in Hamburg named Eduard Remenyi, three years older and by comparison world-wise. Not the best-matched personalities, musically they were a good team, and Brahms learned to improvise accompaniments to Remenyi’s heart-wrenching playing of Hungarian gypsy tunes. In those days, people went to smoky restaurants and dives to listen to gypsy bands much the way people in the 20th Century went to hear jazz. This Hungarian style – not really folk-music – became a very important influence on Brahms whose publisher would later earn a great deal of money from the two sets of Hungarian Dances Brahms arranged. He also included gypsy elements in the last movements of his G Minor Piano Quartet, the Violin Concerto, and the String Quintet, Op.111 - as well as the Double Concerto.
Anyway, Brahms and Remenyi decided to take a recital tour across Northern Germany, stopping off in Hannover to visit Remenyi’s former fellow-student, Joseph Joachim.
Seven years earlier, Brahms had heard Joachim play the Beethoven concerto in Hamburg and had been very impressed. When he’d played in Vienna, critic Eduard Hanslick wrote that he didn’t “play the crowd but searched deep in the music for structure and meaning,” a very different approach to the usual slap-dash virtuosity of the day.
So it was odd that, after becoming a professor at the Leipzig Conservatory at the age of 17, Joachim would go off to become the concertmaster for the orchestra Franz Liszt conducted in Weimar, where this great pianist and traveling virtuoso settled down to become a composer and conductor. It had to be more than the common factor of their Hungarian nationality. One of the functions of the Weimar orchestra, by the way, was to work as Liszt’s laboratory: he often tried out his sketches there, then would go back to revising or rewriting them. Eventually, Joachim tired of all this and in 1852 left to accept the concertmaster and soloist position open at the court of the King of Hannover.
Planned or not, it’s an interesting segue in the Harrisburg Symphony’s opening concert to go from Liszt’s Les Preludes to a work written 30 years later by Brahms, both with only one degree of separation: the violinist Joseph Joachim.
When he and Brahms met, Joachim was almost 22, his birthday a few weeks away, already acknowledged as one of the leading performers of his time for almost a decade. Brahms had just turned 20 and was not even known in his home town of Hamburg except to a few fellow music afficionados. The violinist was happy to see his old friend Remenyi and intrigued by this shy boyish-looking pianist with long blonde hair and piercing blue eyes he had brought along with him as his accompanist. Well, if he’s a composer, have him play something.
And he did – there were two large-scale sonatas, a demonic little Scherzo in E-flat Minor plus several other works which never made it to the publishers.
Joachim was impressed – in fact, remembering that day fifty years later, he was “completely overwhelmed.” Having lost sympathy with the newest of new music, courtesy of Franz Liszt, Joachim was just beginning to look around for some other composer who could be such a major force in the music world. He had thought perhaps Schumann, perhaps too underrated to be the antidote to Liszt, but there were not many major composers as we think of them today, following Mendelssohn’s death a few years earlier. Listening to Brahms, he thought perhaps he had found the answer.
Already wise about the musical world, Joachim immediately began to promote his younger friend: he arranged to have him play for the King of Hannover who dubbed him in his delight “Little Beethoven.” He arranged for Remenyi and Brahms to go to in Weimar so he could play for Franz Liszt, which did not go over well. Liszt sight-read the music when Brahms was too nervous to play: when the C Major Sonata turned out not to be as compatible with him as the E-flat Minor Scherzo, he decided to play his own B Minor Sonata instead, only to notice Brahms had dozed off in the middle of it. Brahms and Remenyi ended up parting ways, the violinist staying with Liszt and Brahms going back to visit Joachim.
A few weeks before, Joachim had just gotten back from Düsseldorf where Robert and Clara Schumann lived: they were very impressed with his playing of the Beethoven concerto there and he was excited to hear Robert conduct his 4th Symphony and Clara play his Piano Concerto. So Joachim thought it a good idea to take Brahms to meet them, too. At first, Brahms was reluctant: when they had gone to Hamburg to perform a couple of years earlier – the composer tagging along on the petticoats of his famous wife and otherwise overlooked by the local critics – Schumann returned the package of music Brahms had dropped off for him at their hotel, hoping for an introduction. Not only were there no comments, the package hadn’t even been opened. So, no – Brahms had no interest in trying to meet him again.
But at noon on September 30th, 1853, Johannes Brahms stood at the front door of the Schumanns’ little house in Düsseldorf and rang the bell.
The rest is history.
Actually, the Schumanns weren’t home at the time, but their daughter told the young visitor to come back the next day an hour earlier. In a way, they were expecting he’d show up some day soon: Joachim had already been espousing “the gospel of Johannes.”
In the next few months, Brahms’ life must have been very exciting – Schumann arranged for four of his works to be published (though there were several works that weren’t). He began working on a third piano sonata (unfortunately, his last) and he spent much time with the Schumann family and with their friend Joachim who came to town in October for a concert.
The rehearsal had been a disaster, Schumann sometimes getting so engrossed in the music he stopped conducting. The night after the concert, there was a special party for Joachim in which he was given a new violin sonata written just for him by a committee of friends. Sight-reading it with Clara at the piano, he quickly guessed the composers’ identities: Albert Dietrich, a close friend and associate of Schumann’s, wrote the first movement; Schumann himself, the Intermezzo and the Finale; Brahms, the Scherzo, the only movement from the work that has survived in the repertoire (known as the “Sonatensatz” or Scherzo in C Minor). On Schumann’s suggestion, the thematic tie that binds the work together is a motive based on what Joachim called his “life motto” – Frei aber einsam, “Free but lonely” – turned into the musical pitches F, A and E. Consequently the work is known to history as “The F.A.E. Sonata.”
Schumann wrote an article about Brahms called Neue Bahnen - “New Paths” - hailing the young man as the heir to Beethoven, the anointed Messiah of music. This caused quite a stir not just in the music world, considering very few in the wider world had heard any of his music. True, Schumann had said this before about any number of young composers, none of whom ever lived up to the prophecies, like Ludwig Schunke and William Sterndale Bennet, just to name two. The “New Music” crowd around Liszt and Wagner hooted at the idea, so it was with some trepidation that Brahms went off to Leipzig to meet with his would-be publishers and be introduced to the city that was famously associated with Bach and Mendelssohn. And Liszt just happened to be in town.
Berlioz, the “spiritual father of the New German Music school,” was also in town and heard Brahms play: more impressed with him than Liszt had been, Berlioz wrote to Joachim after Brahms had played parts of his new piano sonata. “I am grateful to you for having let me make the acquaintance of this diffident, audacious young man who has into his head to make a new music. He will suffer greatly.”
While there, Brahms played his A Minor Violin Sonata (another work that has disappeared) with Ferdinand David for whom Mendelssohn wrote his violin concerto. They played chamber music and Brahms performed some of his piano music in public on one of David’s quartet concerts.
After returning home to Hamburg at Christmastime bearing copies of his first music to be seen into print, Brahms returned to Hannover at the start of the new year, running around with Joachim and a new friend, a composer and conductor (and presumably cellist), Julius Otto Grimm, the three of them forming a kind of Rat Pack to which they gave the rather Monty-Pythonesque name Das Kaffernbund or “League of Silly Asses.”
To Brahms, this kind of friendship was new and exciting. In Hamburg, he had been something of a loner and though still, basically, an introvert, he enjoyed the time spent with the Schumanns and Joachim. A chain-smoker, Brahms initiated Joachim into the world of cigars. They talked of many things, philosophy and art, and of course played lots of music.
But Joachim, like many vituosos thriving on the adulation of the crowd, needed constant reinforcement from his friends, something Brahms occasionally found unbearable. And while Joachim had a vindictive and jealous streak he found difficult to control, he wrote to his fiancee that Brahms was “egotistic and always on the lookout for something to his advantage – but at any rate he is sincere... with none of the false sentimentality with which others of his kind like to deceive themselves.”
Joachim’s fiancee did not like Brahms though that’s probably not why she declined to marry the violinist. Joachim was devastated but found strength in his motto “Frei aber einsam.”
Then the unthinkable happened, just weeks after another concert when the Schumanns came to Hannover for a program that included Schumann’s 4th Symphony with Joachim playing Robert’s Fantasy for Violin & Orchestra and Clara playing Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto. A month later, Brahms and Joachim received an alarming message from Albert Dietrich, that Schumann had tried to commit suicide two days earlier, throwing himself in the Rhine. Pulled out by some men who had been there at the time, he was about to be committed to an asylum.
Brahms arrived in Düsseldorf two days later, Joachim the next day. That day, as their friend was escorted to the carriage to take him away, Clara, five month’s pregnant with her eighth child, was not allowed to see him: the children watched from an upstairs window.
The members of the Kaffernbund stayed close by with the family, helping Clara and the children through these awful months. There was also music making, including read-throughs of Brahms’ newest work, the B Major Piano Trio, with Joachim and Grimm. As months passed on to a year, Clara had to resume performing to bring in an income and Brahms stayed with the children, becoming Uncle Johannes. At one point, he taught them how to somersault; one of the Schumann daughters recalled him doing a handstand on the banister before jumping down to the floor.
Joachim had to resume his duties in Hannover, but visited often. By the end of the year, Clara made her first tour in years, playing 22 concerts in two months.
In German, people usually address each other by the “formal” pronoun “Sie,” but close friends might use the “familiar” form, “du.” Brahms and Joachim used “du” almost from the beginning. Liszt had invited his errant acolyte to use “du” but Joachim declined. In all the decades Joachim was a member of Clara Schumann’s close circle, they never used “du.”
And so it went for years, this friendship between composer and violinist. Like any friendship, it had its ups and downs.
For his 22nd birthday, Joachim gave Brahms a copy of “The Complete Kapellmeister” by a contemporary of Bach’s, something Brahms had been looking for – curious about what a “music director” did in the days of the Baroque, he was also looking for some background information for his own situation, having been “appointed Messiah” without anyone to give him advice (Schumann being ill and the older generation all on the other side of the artistic fence).
Brahms suggested they trade and grade each others “homework assignments” in counterpoint, one of the oldest and most abstract technical exercises a composer could study but which few in the 19th Century cared much about (even Schubert, in his last days, began taking counterpoint lessons, feeling he was missing something). For the spring and summer of 1855 and off and on for several years, back and forth went their exercises, and while Joachim may have eventually realized he was not the composer he wanted to be, Brahms found much of value in this project, using some of his Palestrina-style canons in some of the choral works he was writing at the time.
While Joachim and Clara toured often (see drawing, left, made in 1853), on occasion Brahms would join them, though he found himself nervous on-stage and uncomfortable performing. Later he was able to bring in some money from concertizing. He played Beethoven’s 4th Concerto and Mozart’s D Minor Concerto (a fee for a single performance was greater than the money his publisher paid him for the Four Ballades, Op. 10, about the only work he wrote that year to survive to the publishers).
One thing they had in common was their dislike for the music of Liszt and Wagner, the “New German Music” that repudiated the past (basically, the best thing about Beethoven was, he paved the way for Wagner) and denounced as useless the “formalist” approach to abstract or pure music. As far as Brahms and Joachim were concerned, Liszt’s histrionic style and Wagner’s “Total Work of Art” were the death of music.
Earlier, Joachim had finally written to Liszt, his former mentor whose music he was increasingly less comfortable with, "I am completely out of sympathy with your music; it contradicts everything which from early youth I have taken as mental nourishment from the spirit of our great masters." And so in 1860, he and Brahms co-wrote a Manifesto of sorts against Liszt and Wagner’s progressive style and their far-reaching influence.
Unfortunately their Manifesto was leaked to the Lisztians before it had gathered more than four signatures – a rather puny manifesto – and though it did no real harm to either Brahms or Joachim, it made them look pretty ridiculous in the eyes of the new music scene. One thing it did do, unfortunately, was politicize the two styles of music. It would be unlikely, afterward, if someone of Berlioz’ stature would have spoken so warmly of someone like young Brahms’ potential stature in the world. Where Liszt had been supportive of Schumann as Schumann had been supportive of Berlioz, Liszt would never play or conduct any music by Brahms in his life. Like it or not, now, audiences began lining up behind one or the other: it was as if auditoriums across Europe were turning into Red Halls and Blue Halls...
A few years later, Joachim married one of the opera singers in Hannover, a contralto named Amalie Schneeweiss (see photo, right). Brahms was in the midst of discovering some previously unknown works of Franz Schubert’s (the drying sand was even still stuck to the ink, as if Brahms were the first person to see them in the 35 years since Schubert’s death - he scraped the sand off and kept it in a glass container on his own desk), but he wished the newlyweds the best even as he knew what the loss of his closest bachelor friend would mean to him: perhaps no longer “einsam” but also no longer “frei”...
When their first child was born – a son they named Johannes – Brahms composed for them the “Spiritual Lullaby” I’d mentioned above, with the viola part (intended for Joachim) quoting “Josef lieber, Josef mein.”
Brahms admired Amalie’s voice: on the same program that saw the premiere of A German Requiem (which then did not have the famous soprano solo movement), she sang “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth” from Handel’s Messiah and with Joachim, who was the concertmaster, “Erbarme dich” from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. In later years, Brahms would conduct performances of the “Alto Rhapsody” with her, a work associated with failed love.
Amalie had agreed to give up the operatic stage – apparently because Joachim thought it a loose lifestyle – and sang only in concerts and recitals. There were concerns that Amalie came between them, not least from Amalie herself who wrote to Clara that she wished nothing better for her husband (she called him “Jo”) than to spend time with his friends. She admitted to being “an unskilled housewife” and that Joachim didn’t find her an inspiration. Two years into the marriage and already it seemed to be in trouble.
Part of the problem was Joachim’s constant need for confirmation, as he had plagued Brahms early in their own friendship. After the birth of their second child, Amalie became ill with frequently recurring bouts of rheumatism. Joachim was always threatening to leave her.
Then in 1873, just as Brahms was turning 40, oblique remarks in one of his letters about Joachim’s plans to conduct the German Requiem at the Schumann Festival implied he would rather it not be performed; then he was upset when it wasn’t; then Joachim stuck to his guns and on it escalated. Finally, Joachim wrote to him,
“Let us be quite frank. For the last few years, whenever we have met, I have always felt that your manner towards me was not what it used to be... No doubt I have disappointed many of the hopes you set on my development and have been more indolent [than] you liked in many respects [particularly pertaining to his compositions which, by this time, he had largely abandoned]...What more natural than for me to imagine that you [now] regarded our old intimacy... as something embarrassing rather than desirable. You wanted a reassuring answer. I wonder if this is one?”
The following year, gossip reached Brahms that Joachim’s jealousy of Amalie and the men around her brought about accusations of an affair with the publisher Fritz Simrock, a friend of Brahms’. Brahms thought it was all in Joachim’s imagination.
Then three years later, toward the end of summer, Brahms wrote to Joachim that he had jotted down “a few violin passages” which actually turned out to be sketches for the first movement of a large-scale concerto! And he was asking him for advice, at least theoretically. They got together and Joachim, violin in hand, would try things out, showing him how to notate the bowing, sometimes rewriting passages to make them easier for the violinist. Sometimes Brahms accepted his changes, sometimes he ignored them.
Joachim was pressuring for a quick premiere, but Brahms got frustrated with the two middle movements he had planned. Originally, the work was to be in four movements like a symphony rather than the traditional three of a concerto. He discarded the scherzo which later found its way into the 2nd Piano Concerto (he was, after all, more comfortable writing for his own instrument than for the violin), and he said he was now writing “a wretched adagio.” As beautiful as we may find this movement, with its exquisite oboe solo, it was one reason another great violinist of the day refused to ever play the work: Pablo de Sarasate complained he could never stand silent on the stage “and listen while an oboe player plays the only tune in the Adagio”.
He and Joachim worked on the revisions through the summer of 1878 and the work was finally ready for a New Year’s Day premiere in Leipzig, Joachim unnerved by last-minute changes and Brahms more nervous than usual on the podium. In Vienna, surprisingly, it was rapturously received. When Joachim took it to Berlin, people wondered why they had to be subjected to such trash. Overall, the wider world did not much care for the work. Disappointed, Brahms took the rough draft for a second violin concerto he was already working on – and burned it!
After the concerto, Brahms wrote his first published violin sonata (he’d written at least three before) which he and Joachim then took on tour. It was rough going, at times, mostly because of Brahms’ rather cavalier attitude toward practicing.
A year later, in 1880, Joachim turned to Brahms for personal advice, thinking again of separating from his wife, Amalie. He was stunned to realize Brahms sided with his wife. Afterward, the composer wrote to her,
“Let me say first and foremost: with no word, with no thought have I ever acknowledged that your husband might be in the right... Despite a thirty-year friendship, despite all my love and admiration for Joachim, despite all our artistic interests... I perhaps hardly need to say that, even earlier than you did, I became aware of the unfortunate character-trait with which Joachim so inexcusably tortures himself and others... The simplest matter is so exaggerated, so complicated, that one scarcely knows where to begin with it and how to bring it to an end... His passionate imagination is playing a sinful and inexcusable game with the best and most holy thing fate has granted him.”
In 1884, this letter was later used in court during the inevitable divorce proceedings. Joachim sued on the grounds of adultery. Brahms had no idea she would use his letter for such a character reference, but it was the reason Amalie won the case. After this, the friendship was at an end. Even after he’d complain loudly to other friends about Brahms’ disloyalty, Joachim would then walk out on stage to perform the concerto Brahms had written for him.
The next year, Joachim wrote tentatively to Brahms telling him he thought his new 4th Symphony, the one most people thought too intellectual and old-fashioned, was his favorite. Brahms’ rather stuffy reply (“...as though one had to wait for [praise like this] for permission to enjoy one’s own work”) didn’t seem to open any possible reconciliation.
Then, in the summer of 1887, Brahms wrote to Clara that he was writing, of all things, a concerto for violin and cello. The intended cellist, Robert Hausmann (photographed, right, with Brahms in 1889), was a member of Joachim’s quartet, for whom he’d recently written his second cello sonata (well, the second one he published). By September, Joachim joined Hausmann, Brahms and Clara for some rehearsals. Uncharacteristically – since Joachim had to wait one year for his concerto and fourteen for the 1st Symphony – this concerto was ready for its premiere a month later with Brahms more comfortable on the podium.
As he told a friend after the performance, “Now I know what it is that’s been missing in my life for the past few years. It was the sound of Joachim’s violin.”
If the dark 4th Symphony with its E Minor finale was considered tragic, the A Minor Double Concerto with its gypsy-style finale largely in the minor key did not seem quite so dark yet it failed to win much support from Brahms’ public. Clara didn’t think the work had any future, lacking the warmth and freshness of his earlier works. Another close friend found it “tedious,” a “senile production,” and he was convinced “it was all up with our Johannes.” Even Joachim was fairly cool toward the piece at first, warming up to it only after several performances.
As he had started work on a second violin concerto after what he thought would be an easily accessible work and, incidentally, had also started not one but two more symphonies after the 4th’s premiere – one far enough along to play at the piano for some friends before it, too, was consigned to the flames – Brahms had started sketching a second double concerto but then destroyed it, also. He was, if nothing else, feeling very old-fashioned: he was convinced when he died, the great stream of Classical Music - from Bach to Beethoven to Brahms - would dry up with him.
The year he wrote the Double Concerto, Brahms met a young Frenchman named Claude Debussy. A teen-aged Arnold Schoenberg was beginning to compose in Vienna – the man who “destroyed” tonality, as some like to demonize him, was more influenced by Brahms than by Wagner and Liszt, ironically. A year later, Mahler completed his 1st Symphony and Richard Strauss premiered Don Juan.
In 1890, Brahms wrote his G Major String Quintet – Joachim advised him that you’d need three cellists to cut through that wall of sound of the other string players and Brahms, characteristically, ignored him. Thinking this would be his last work, he decided to retire from composing. He wrote to his publisher that he had thrown “reams” of paper into the river, sketches and unfinished works as well as complete pieces which he deemed not good enough to entrust to the public.
Fortunately, the sound of Richard Mühlfeld’s clarinet brought him out of retirement within a year and he produced a series of chamber pieces for him – alas, no concerto – before he was diagnosed with cancer. He barely made it to Clara Schumann’s funeral in time and the loss took its toll on him. He himself died the following year, a prematurely old man at the age of 63.
Joachim was touring in England when news came that Brahms had died. To a friend he wrote,
“I often think sadly of the last pleasure it was in our power to give him... I have never heard him express his gratitude so warmly as after listening to his G Major Quintet; he seemed almost satisfied with his work. We still have his works – as an individual I counted for little with him during the last years of his life.”
But at least their friendship gave us many works we can still savor today, whether directly like the Violin Concerto or indirectly like all those pieces Brahms had asked his advice about, even if he ignored it.
And certainly the Double Concerto, which would never have come about otherwise. Every time I hear it, I hear two old friends talking over old times, conversing, arguing, perhaps waxing nostalgic (as in the slow movement) and now and then the old Kaffernbund peeking through the finale: but in general having a good time of it, as old friends might.
For a composer who was often described by his friends as well as his critics as cold and formalistic, this is a very human piece of music. A friendship like this one was a rare gift and music can only be an approximation of its value.
Most of the material mentioned here is available in any number of sources, but much of the detail and all of the quotes can be found in Jan Swafford's Johannes Brahms: A Biography.