Written by Jeff Counts
THE COMPOSER – JOHANNES BRAHMS (1833-1897) – Brahms spent the greater part of the 1850s building his first orchestral masterpiece, the D Minor Piano Concerto, out of material meant for other works. The time between the first sketches in 1854 and the premiere performance of 1859 encompassed a lifetime of intense personal experiences for Brahms, most of which revolved around his special (and complicated) relationship with Robert and Clara Schumann.
THE MUSIC – The 20-year-old Brahms had made quite an impression on Robert Schumann in 1853. Schumann, in his oft-quoted article from that year entitled “New Paths,” spoke of the younger man in almost messianic terms. Brahms was, for Schumann, the fulfillment of a prophecy (his own, admittedly) in which a new artistic voice would appear suddenly and fully formed as if from the mind of a god to “express the ideal form and spirit of his time.” As the friendship between Brahms and the Schumanns developed in complex ways – Robert soon lost his mental stability and died in 1856 while Clara became the object of an enduring romantic affection – Brahms was sorting the ingredients of his D Minor Concerto. Unlike himself, it would not spring “fully formed” from the mind. This concerto was a result of patient deliberation and reassignment. Brahms to this point was reluctant to tackle the symphony form and was frightened enough of Beethoven’s ghost that he shied away from orchestral music altogether. He had heard Beethoven’s 9th for the first time in 1854 and this experience likely put to rest any symphonic thoughts of his own. Instead, he poured his ideas into a sonata for two pianos but felt increasingly stifled by the limits of this instrumentation. There was a nagging question of grandeur that only an orchestra could answer and after a year of helpful commentary from his friend Joseph Joachim, the brilliant “symphony with solo piano” was born.
THE WORLD – Excavation of the Suez Canal began in 1859. Charles Darwin published his shocking scientific work On the Origin of Species and Alfred Lord Tennyson released the first portion of his Arthurian epic The Idylls of the King.
THE CONNECTION – Brahms’ 1st Piano Concerto is a popular work on Utah Symphony Masterworks seasons. The most recent performance was in 2009 under the baton of Pinchas Zukerman with Jonathan Biss as soloist.