Saturday, August 22, 2020

Brahms - Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor

Brahms was a very self-critical composer. He revised and edited his compositions, some of them for years, until they met his high standards. and those compositions that he couldn't refine to his liking were destroyed. He claimed to have destroyed twenty string quartets before he wrote one that met his standards.

The beginnings of the first piano concerto are also an example of his drive for perfection. He began the work as a sonata for two pianos,  then began to revise it as a symphony. For whatever the reasons (as his new friend Joseph Joachim, the famous violinist and composer encouraged him) Brahms again converted the music, this time to a piano concerto.

Brahms doted on the score, refining and editing it over and over again. Brahms had heard Beethoven's 9th Symphony for the first time in 1854 and it had influenced him deeply. His drive to create a composition worthy of the tradition created by Beethoven and the other masters he revered while at the same time utilizing his progressive ideas made the work on the concerto last many years. Finally in 1859 Brahms played the premiere of the work with his friend Joachim at the podium.  A few days after this performance it had its premiere at Leipzig with Brahms again at the piano but with a different conductor at the podium. The critics were harsh in their appraisal:

“This work … cannot give pleasure. Save its serious intention, it has nothing to offer but waste, barren dreariness,” said one critic, with another saying, “The work, with all its serious striving, its rejection of triviality, its skilled instrumentation, seemed difficult to understand, even dry, and in parts eminently fatiguing.”  And it fared no better with the audience, especially at the Leipzig performance. Brahms described the scene in a letter to Joachim about the Leipzig performance:

“Nor reaction at all to the first and second movements. At the end, three pairs of hands tried slowly to clap, whereupon a clear hissing from all sides quickly put an end to any such demonstration … I am only experimenting and feeling my way, all the same, the hissing was rather too much."

An audience's appreciation of a work is most often gauged by the amount of applause. That also works in reverse, as when as audience 'sits on their hands' (sometimes literally as well as figuratively) it can be hard for a composer or performer to bear. Boos and cat-calls are worse, but an audience hissing is the ultimate negative reaction. I've been present in an audience when it has happened, and it can send a chill down your spine.  Brahms was 25 years old when he experienced this, and it made Brahms all the more cautious about his works, but he also resolved to work even harder to perfect his craft. He vowed to rewrite the work, but all he did was correct a few minor details. Despite the negativity shown the work at the premiers, Brahms judgement proved correct. It is now regarded as a classic and is a staple of the repertoire, although it took years for it to happen. The concerto is in three movements:

I. Maestoso - The menacing and fierce trills that open this concerto are one of the most recognizable pieces of music in the repertoire.  Brahms has begun the work with music that is brutally confident, sounds that grab our attention and are portents of things to come.  From the treatment of themes to the entrance of the soloist,  Brahms finds his own way from 'point A to point B', and manages to use the inspiration of Beethoven's ninth symphony to communicate his own ideas in his own way.  Looking at this movement in an historical perspective,  we can see just how innovative Brahms was. He was at 25 years old (and for all of his career) not only an upholder of tradition, but an innovator in ways that are not always apparent (or obvious) to the listener. His phrase structure, use of sonata form and rhythm, lead to a type of virtuosity that isn't always apparent (or obvious) either. It is a virtuosity that stresses the making of music, of expression, with very few purely technical fireworks. Everything works towards the musical whole.

II. Adagio - This movement is usually thought of as a tribute to the Schumanns, both Robert and Clara.  Robert had died in an insane asylum in 1856 and Brahms always had deep feelings for Clara. Again, there is no mere display of pianism, but music that in turn is passionate, dramatic, rhapsodic. Near the end is a chain of trills for the piano that go up the keyboard that is resolved by the slow, gentle ending of the movement.

III.Rondo: Allegro non troppo -  The piano begins with what always sounds to me like a foot-heavy dance, not really a peasant dance but not anywhere near a sophisticated one. The dreamy tune that endures brings a needed contrast. The orchestra plays through a short fugue that shows Brahms' already considerable contrapuntal skills.  The rondo plays itself out until the cadenza, after which Brahms changes the mood to a 'maestoso' but unlike the dark and foreboding maestoso of the first movement this maestoso is bright, confident, jubilant, and marches its way to the end.


  1. The introduction to the adagio moves me to tears almost every time. The bassoon harmony with the serene unison string counterpoint is the perfect combination. Then when the piano enters for the first time, I feel all my muscles relaxing.

    Sometimes it is hard to listen to Brahms. The harmonies are so lush and the voicing so perfect, it's like eating fudge that is too sweet. But he was a genius. Thanks for writing.

  2. One of the greatest pieces of music, I first heard this when I was 26 and was simply swept off my feet. That someone who was only my own age could had written something so profound-it felt like staring at the summit of a tall mountain from its foot-an overwhelming experience. It lead to an abiding love for Brahms' music.

  3. I'd love to understand better why the audience hated this piece so very much.