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16 Sep 2021

BRAHMS: Violin Concerto in D Major for Violin, Op. 77

by Jeff Counts

Duration: 38 minutes in three movements.

THE COMPOSER – JOHANNES BRAHMS (1833-1897) – In the middle years of the 1870s, Brahms was forced to contend with something his dogged humility may have been averse to – fame. His first two symphonies, finally written after decades of doubt, were actively out in the world confirming him as both Beethoven’s successor and a conservative foil to Wagner and the other progressives. This success gave Brahms the courage to stare down another of his persistent ghosts, this one of his own design. It was time to write another concerto.

Johannes Brahms

Johannes Brahms

THE HISTORY – Not since 1859 and the disastrous launch of his 1st Piano Concerto had Brahms given serious thought to composing another, for any instrument. It was a friendship, a long and devoted one, that eventually brought him back around. Brahms and violin virtuoso Josef Joachim had been friends since 1853 and the latter had been a great help during the construction and trials of the piano concerto. Joachim must have been thrilled then when Brahms told him in 1878 that he had a few nascent “violin passages” to share. Joachim fully expected a highly collaborative process to ensue, much like the one they established back in 1857 and 1858, and he got one. Whenever they could not meet in person, letters and manuscript morsels flew back and forth between the two comrades. It wasn’t always enjoyable. Brahms was often resistant and occasionally dismissive of Joachim’s expert corrections. But both men wanted the piece to be special, worthy of another orbit around Beethoven’s star. Joachim was enthusiastic about the possibility of New Year’s Day premiere in 1879, but Brahms felt unready to meet so ambitious a deadline. He did, in the end, but that Leipzig performance felt a little thrown together, and the friends fretted until the Vienna concerts two weeks later where they could finally enjoy the response they had hoped for. The symphonic nature of the work would continue to fuel its detractors though, Pablo Sarasate notable among them, and the concerto did not always make a big splash in its travels after Vienna. This is hard to fathom, given the work’s current standing (with Beethoven and Mendelssohn) as one of the three unbreakable pillars of 19th century violin mastery. Posterity often makes better arguments than audiences, it seems, and Brahms’s stern masterpiece would simply have to wait for its due.

 

THE WORLD – Elsewhere in 1877, Oglala Lakota leader Crazy Horse was killed by a soldier while in confinement in Nebraska, the first Championships at Wimbledon were held and the Martian moons Phobos and Deimos were discovered.

 

THE CONNECTION – Brahms’ Violin Concerto is a popular work on Utah Symphony Masterworks seasons. The most recent performance was in February 2019 under the baton of Mario Venzago with Stefan Jackiw as soloist.