The Brahms and Bruch violin concertos, apart from sharing the same first two letters, are part of a long string of violin concertos that constitute the major part of the violin concertos that constitute the major part of the standard violin repertoire. They all include rich, symphonic orchestra accompaniments – unlike concertos such as those by Paganini and Chopin, whose orchestra parts were much simpler and more meager. All of them were influenced, inspired, and aided by an astonishly small number of performers from the nineteenth century, all in some way connected to the violinist Joseph Joachim.
In the 1830’s, Felix Mendelssohn spearheaded a movement to revive older classical works, especially those of J.S. Bach. Though a major composer himself, he broke with tradition by featuring and promoting other composers (both dead and alive) on his programs. His efforts to promote dead composers was labeled a revival, but this was a misleading term, as much of the music he championed (e.g. Bach) had never been performed, or if it had, had received such dismal premieres as to doom future success. Beethoven’s Violin concerto is a typical example. At its premiere, Beethoven’s friend, violinist Franz Clement, was forced to sight-read some sections because Beethoven had procrastinated in preparing the solo part on time. An embarrassed Clement, desiring to prove to the audience that he was not totally lacking in talent, inserted a work of his own between the first and second movements, played on only one string with the violin held upside down. The concerto was deemed a failure. It was not until 1844, seventeen years after Beethoven’s death, that Beethoven’s concerto received it first decent performance, with 12-year-old Joseph Joachim soloing and Mendelssohn conducting. The concertmaster was Joachim’s teacher, Ferdinand David, who had worked closely with Mendelssohn on Mendelssohn’s own violin concerto.
Johannes Brahms’s violin concerto was composed in 1878 and dedicated to Joachim, who contributed many suggestions to its solo part. When Joachim premiered the work in Leipzig in 1879, he performed the Beethoven violin concerto first on the same program. Like the first movement of the Beethoven violin concerto, Brahms’s first movement is structured in such a way as to build to a movement of extreme repose at the end of the movement, right after the cadenza. Brahms conducted the concert. In spite of the similarities to the Beethoven, which were not a coincidence but more a ways of paying homage (as well as copying what he felt worked), Brahms complained of the concert: “It was a lot of D major – and not much else on the program.” The key of D is idiomatic to the violin. Violin concertos in D have been written by Bach, Mozart, Clement, Beethoven, Paganini, Schumann, Bruch, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Wieniawski, Strauss, Sibelius, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Khachaturian and Korngold.
The main musical influence on Brahms was Robert Schumann, and, after Robert died, Clara Schumann, Robert’s wife and one of the principal pianists of the era. Brahms sent every work he composed to Clara as soon as it was finished, for her approval and suggestions. (If she disapproved, he burned the manuscript.) Through Brahms, Max Bruch also came to know Clara Schumann, and he, like Brahms, also sent his compositions to her, including this violin concerto, for her comments. Like Brahms, he also solicited Joachim’s help in composing the solo part. Joachim, apart from being a violinist, was also a composer, though his works are unplayed today, other than cadenzas for other composers’ concertos. (Mr. Antonello plays Joachim’s cadenza for Brahms.) Oddly enough though Bruch sought Joachim’s compositional advice, he couldn’t stand the way Joachim played his concerto, much preferring the Spanish Pablo Sarasate. Paradoxically, Sarasate took a strong dislike to the Brahms concerto and refused to perform it.
Unlike Beethoven’s violin concerto, Bruch’s found immediate success. Bruch was an excellent pianist and accompanist, but from early on became quite biased towards the violin. He referred to the piano as “That unmelodious keyboard thing” and “that dull rattle-trap,” whereas he claimed “the violin can sing melody better than the piano can, and melody is the soul of music.” As he developed as a composer, he became even more emphatic about melody being the key element in music, especially because he felt melody was being increasingly down-played in modern (late nineteenth century) music: “As a rule, a good folk tune is more valuable than 200 created works or art…here is the salvation of our unmelodic times…only melody survives…” His obsession with melody is demonstrated in the emotional inspiration of the slow (middle) movement of his concerto, which unusual in classical work has always been the audience’s favorite.
Clara Schumann was sent Bruch’s concerto for her opinion and suggestions, but she was only one of many, for he wrote numerous versions. (Hundreds of people claimed they had witness Abraham Lincoln composing his Gettysburg Address; they were telling the truth – he worked on it everywhere.) Although Bruch was a composer of much experience, the G minor concerto seemed to take over his life, becoming a vast struggle. “It is a damned difficult thing to do…” (Write a violin concerto) “…between 1864 and 1868 I rewrote my concerto at least half a dozen times, and conferred with violinist before it took the final form in which it is universally famous and played everywhere.” He worked with both Joachim and Ferdinand David.
The Bruch concerto was premiered by all the famous violinists of the day: David, Joachim, Auer, and Vieutemps. Bruch was thrilled: “…it advances brilliantly.” It was considered the successor of the Mendelssohn concerto of 20 years before, and brooked no completion until the Brahms concerto ten years later.
Just as Rachmaninoff was plagued by the early success of his C-sharp minor prelude, blotting out attention to his other works, Bruch became frustrated by the increasing neglect of his other compositions, including hundreds of choral, symphonic, and chamber works, and well as other violin concertos. When a violinist wished to audition for him, Bruch would hear him “on condition that he does not play my world-renowned Concerto in G minor, because I cannot hear it anymore.” In 1903 he wrote during a visit to Naples: “On the corner of the Via Toledo they stand there, ready to break out with my first violin concerto as soon as I allow myself to be seen. They can all go to the devil! As if I had not written other equally good concertos!” The situation has changed little; Gramaphone Magazine in 2002 reported 77 recordings of the first violin concerto only three of his third.
Joachim promoted the careers of many composers during his lifetime, and his playing, albeit of an arthritic old man, can be heard on You Tube. (He lived until 1907.) Clara Schumann missed the opportunity to record on an Edison wax cylinder by dying one year too soon. Brahms, who died a year after Clara, left behind a few nearly inaudible piano recordings made in 1897.
Notes by Peter Arnstein