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8.570321 - BRAHMS, J. / SCHUMANN, R.: Violin Concertos (Kaler)
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Johannes Brahms (1833-1897): Violin Concerto in D major, Op.77
Robert Schumann (1810-1856): Violin Concerto in D minor

 

Johannes Brahms was born in Hamburg in 1833. His childhood was spent in relative poverty, and his early studies in music, for which he showed a natural aptitude, developed his talent to such an extent that there was talk of touring as a prodigy at the age of eleven. It was Eduard Marxsen who gave him a grounding in the technical basis of composition, while the boy helped his family by playing the piano to entertain guests in summer inns outside the city, a more respectable and better rewarded occupation than he was later to imply.

In 1851 Brahms met the émigré Hungarian violinist Reményi, who introduced him to Hungarian dance music that had a later influence on his work. Two years later he set out in his company on his first concert tour, their journey taking them, on the recommendation of the young Hungarian violinist Joachim, to Weimar, where Franz Liszt held court and might have been expected to show particular favour to a fellow-countryman. Reményi profited from the visit, but Brahms, with a lack of tact that was later accentuated, failed to impress the Master. Later in the year, however, he met the Schumanns, through Joachim’s agency. The meeting was a fruitful one.

In the music of Brahms Schumann detected a promise of greatness and published his views in the journal he had once edited, the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, declaring Brahms the long-awaited successor to Beethoven. During Schumann’s final years, after his attempt at suicide and subsequent breakdown, Brahms rallied to the support of Schumann’s wife, Clara Schumann, and her young family, remaining a firm friend until her death in 1896, shortly before his own in the following year.

Brahms completed his Violin Concerto in 1878 and dedicated it to his friend Joseph Joachim. The relationship with Joachim was later to suffer through Brahms’s lack of tact, when he tried to intervene in a dispute between Joachim and his wife, the singer Amalie Joachim, who submitted evidence of her husband’s faults of character in a letter written to her by Brahms. The breach was in part repaired by the later composition of the Double Concerto for violin and cello in 1887, a peace offering.

Following his usual custom, Brahms worked on the Violin Concerto during his summer holiday at Pörtschach, where in 1877 he had started his Second Symphony. The first performance of the work was given in Leipzig on New Year’s Day, 1879, with Joachim as the soloist. The concerto combines two complementary aspects of the composer, that of the artist concerned with the great and serious, as a contemporary critic put it, and that of the lyrical composer of songs. As always Brahms was critical of his own work, and the concerto, long promised, had been the subject of his usual doubts and hesitations. Originally four movements had been planned, but in the end the two middle movements were replaced by the present Adagio, music that Brahms described as feeble but that pleased Joachim as much as it has always delighted audiences.

The first movement opens with an orchestral exposition in which the first subject is incompletely presented in the initial bars. Its full appearance is entrusted to the soloist, after the orchestra has offered a second subject and other themes that will later seem eminently well suited to the solo violin. The actual entry of the soloist and the approach to it must remind us of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, with its rather longer exposition that had so taxed the patience of Viennese audiences seventy years earlier. The cadenza was left to Joachim. The slow movement is splendidly lyrical, based on a melody of great beauty, which is expanded and developed by the soloist and the orchestra, dying away before the vigorous opening of the Hungarian-style finale. This, in rondo form, is of great variety, intervening episodes providing a contrast with the energetic principal theme, leading to a conclusion of mounting excitement.

Robert Schumann is in many ways typical of the age in which he lived, combining in his music a number of the principal characteristics of Romanticism, as he did in his life. Born in Zwickau in 1810, the son of a bookseller, publisher and writer, he showed an early interest in literature and was to make a name for himself in later years as a writer and as editor of the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, a journal launched in 1834. His father encouraged his literary and musical interests and at one time thought of sending him to study with Weber, a proposal that was abandoned with the death of the latter, closely followed by the death of Schumann’s father.

Schumann’s career now followed a more conventional course. In 1828 he entered the University of Leipzig, where his attention to his studies was as intermittent as it was to be the following year at Heidelberg. He was eventually able to persuade his mother and guardian that he should be allowed to study music under the well-known piano teacher Friedrich Wieck, whose energies had been directed with some intensity towards the training of his own daughter Clara, a pianist of prodigious early talent. Schumann’s ambitions as a pianist, however, were frustrated by a weakness in the fingers, whatever its true cause, and his other musical studies had, at the very least, lacked application. Nevertheless in the 1830s he wrote a great deal of music for the piano, often in the form of shorter, genre pieces, with some extra-musical literary or autobiographical association. There was an affair with one of Wieck’s pupils, later broken off, but by 1835 he had begun to turn his attention to Clara Wieck, nine years his junior. Wieck had good reason to object to the liaison. His daughter had a career before her as a concert performer and Schumann had shown signs of instability of character, whatever his abilities as a composer might be. Matters were taken to an extreme when resort was had to litigation, in order to prevent what Wieck saw as a disastrous marriage.

It was not until 1840 that Schumann was eventually able to marry Clara, after her father’s legal attempts to oppose the match had finally failed. The couple married in September, remaining first in Leipzig, although journeys took place for concert appearances by Clara, generally accompanied by her husband, whose position was of lesser distinction. In 1844 they moved to Dresden, where it seemed that Schumann might recover from the bouts of depression that he had suffered in the earlier days of marriage. Here again no official position seemed to offer itself and it was only in 1849 that the prospect of employment arose, this time in Düsseldorf, where Schumann took up his position as director of music in 1850.

Mendelssohn had enjoyed an uneasy relationship with the Düsseldorf authorities, and Schumann, much less skilled in administration and conducting, proved even less able to cope with the difficulties that arose. The pressures on him led to a complete nervous break-down in 1854 and final years spent in an asylum at Endenich, where he died in 1856.

Schumann wrote his Violin Concerto in 1853 in the space of two weeks at the end of September and beginning of October. It seemed a time of hope and happiness, in spite of the difficulties of his position in Düsseldorf. On 30th September the young Brahms arrived, playing some of his work to Schumann and improvising at the piano with Clara. It was Schumann’s intention that his concerto should be played in Düsseldorf by the orchestra for which he was then responsible but from which he was shortly to withdraw, at the request of the Düsseldorf authorities. For Joachim he wrote in September a Phantasie, Op. 131, for violin and orchestra, and a violin arrangement of his Cello Concerto of 1850, and for these, as for the new concerto, he relied on Joachim’s advice. He was able to hear a run-through of the work in Hanover, where Joachim was concert-master, in January 1854. Joachim seems to have entertained reservations about the work and after Schumann’s attempted suicide in February and final break-down, it was decided by Clara Schumann that the concerto should not be released. Joachim, when he bequeathed the score to the Prussian State Library, stipulated that it should not be published until a hundred years after Schumann’s death. This prohibition was perpetuated by Schumann’s surviving daughter and it was only through the intervention of the Hungarian violinist Jelly d’Aranyi, a great-niece of Joachim, who claimed to have received a spirit message from Schumann, that the work was, in 1937, brought before the public.

The first movement opens dramatically, the orchestral exposition with its two subjects leading to the solo entry with a version of the first subject and the lyrical secondary theme in F major. The movement follows the plan of a classical concerto, with a formal recapitulation that brings the second subject back in D major. The slow movement starts with a divided cello section, introducing an element of syncopation before the entry of the soloist with an expressive theme. There is a short linking passage, again with accompanying cello syncopation, before the energetic polonaise that provides the substance of the last movement. In spite of the enthusiastic advocacy of Yehudi Menuhin, who saw in the concerto a link between Beethoven and Brahms, the work has remained controversial, with some, like Clara Schumann, sensing in it the decline of Schumann’s powers, a reservation she held about other late compositions by her husband.

Keith Anderson


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