Doubly Demanding: Brahms’s Concerto for Violin and Cello

June 13, 2019

by Kelly Dean Hansen, Ph.D.

“Guest blogger Kelly Dean Hansen has chosen one work from each of the six weeks of the 2019 Colorado Music Festival season to spotlight.  He will be exploring these works with the aim of explaining what makes them lasting, immortal parts of the classical repertoire.”

“Tedious and wearisome – a really senile production.” That assessment of the “Double” Concerto for Violin and Cello by Johannes Brahms came not from one of his enemies, but from one of his closest and most sympathetic friends, the surgeon Theodor Billroth. And his reaction was not uncommon. Biographer Richard Specht said that the concerto was “one of Brahms’s most unapproachable and joyless compositions.” What was it about the composer’s final concerto (and his final orchestral composition overall) that listeners found so troublesome? After all, by 1887, Brahms was well into his late compositional period, with all four symphonies behind him, recognized as one of the greatest musical geniuses of his age.

Today, of course, the Double Concerto is acclaimed as the masterwork it is, both in terms of its architectural logic and its romantic expression. Far from “joyless,” and in contrast to the Fourth Symphony, this minor-key composition makes a decisive turn to major-key jubilation at the end. And far from “tedious and wearisome,” the interplay between the two instruments—which often dovetail running scale lines to create the effect of a single string instrument with a five-octave range—is riveting and spellbinding to watch.

The reasons for the work’s initial cool reception probably have to do with it being a piece that was ahead of its time. For a composer regarded as a “traditionalist,” several works of Brahms could fit that category. The combination of these two instruments in a concerto did not have a real 19th-Century precedent, and at least since the days of Vivaldi and Haydn, concertos with the cello as a solo instrument were rare.  Dvořák’s Cello Concerto, a transcendental masterpiece, would not be written for another seven years. Brahms was asking quite a lot of his audience as well as his soloists. The Double Concerto is indeed doubly demanding.

It also didn’t help that Brahms used his typical unnecessary modesty when describing the piece and the process of writing it. “I ought to have handed on the idea to someone who knows fiddles better than I do…It is a very different matter writing for instruments whose nature and sound one only has a chance acquaintance with, or only hears in one’s mind, from writing for an instrument that one knows as thoroughly as I know the piano. For in the latter case I know exactly what I write and why I write it as I do. But we will wait and see.” Of course, he had already written numerous masterpieces of chamber music for strings, not to mention the Violin Concerto or even the famous solo cello part in the slow movement of the Second Piano Concerto.

While it is still the least performed of his four concertos, its popularity on concert programs has steadily increased and it is certainly in the standard repertoire. Violinists and cellists who work together in an established piano trio or string quartet can readily prepare it. It is easily the shortest of the Brahms concertos, which is not to say it is unsubstantial. Two of the other three have first movements that last over 20 minutes, and the third has an “extra” fourth movement. It is a standard size for a romantic-era concerto, with a 15-minute first movement, the second and third movements lasting about 8 minutes apiece. On July 11 and 12, violinist Mira Wang and cellist Jan Vogler join the Colorado Music Festival orchestra under principal guest conductor Jean-Marie Zeitouni to present this tightly argued, emotional work, as much a “symphonic” concerto as his earliest one that was written 30 years earlier. It is cleverly programmed with three orchestral works that all have a literary background dealing with “Romantic Duos.”

Music Director, Peter Oundjian, discusses the repertoire for the July 11 and 12 concerts.

Important Precedents

The idea of a concerto featuring two or more solo instruments goes back as far as the genre’s origins in the baroque period. The so-called “concerto grosso,” which set a group of solo instruments against a larger ensemble, was at least as common as the solo concerto. Vivaldi’s 500 concertos include several for multiple solo instruments, including some for the combination of violin and cello. J.S. Bach’s six “Brandenburg Concertos” are all written for multiple solo instruments. But as the solo concerto became more consolidated and codified in the classical era, largely at the hands of Mozart, the “concerto grosso” type faded more into the background.

Ironically, it was Mozart himself who provided Brahms with one of the most cited precedents for his Double Concerto: The Sinfonia Concertante, K. 364, for violin, viola and orchestra of 1779.

It is indeed an excellent work, with wonderful interplay both between the two soloists and between them and the orchestra. An even more obvious model might be Beethoven’s “Triple” Concerto for Piano, Violin, and Cello, written in 1807. In contrast to the Mozart piece, the “Triple” is not regarded as one of its composer’s finest products. Written at the height of Beethoven’s creative powers, at the time of the Eroica Symphony, the piece seems oddly bland and over-long. Its rather simplistic solo piano part, written for a student, is another issue. Beethoven’s insistence on using the cello mostly in its highest register deprives it of many sonic possibilities.

Where Beethoven might have inspired Brahms was the use of the cello to present most of the principal themes in all three movements. Brahms, however, made full use of the instrument’s huge range. While the cello doesn’t “dominate” the violin, it is often more than an equal partner. When he heard Dvořák’s great concerto, he famously expressed that had he known that it was possible to compose such a concerto for the cello, he would have tried it himself. This was also false modesty. He already had written a masterful cello concerto. It just happened to be simultaneously his second masterful violin concerto.

A Peace Offering

The concerto’s origins lie in Brahms’s relationship with the legendary violinist Joseph Joachim, his oldest friend and one of his closest artistic partners. It was for Joachim that he wrote his 1878 Violin Concerto, and few concertos are more closely associated with the artist for whom they were composed. But the relationship suffered a major blow in the 1880s. Joachim had become estranged from his wife Amalie, a noted mezzo-soprano, and the couple divorced in 1884. Brahms was fond of Amalie, and in a letter, he appeared to take her side in the marital dispute. This wounded the violinist deeply. Their friendship was never the same after that, although Brahms did make every effort to make amends. 

One of those attempts was the composition of the Two Songs for Alto with Viola and Piano, Op. 91, in 1884. He had hoped to use the songs as a means of reconciling the couple, intending for Amalie to sing them with Joachim playing the viola part. It was a futile gesture, and while Amalie did sing the songs on numerous occasions, her husband was never the violist in those performances.

Three years after the divorce, Brahms conceived the concerto for violin and cello, perhaps intending the cello to be a “mediator.” Joachim was flattered that Brahms would once again write a large piece specifically for him, and he again involved himself with the process of composition. The other recipient was Robert Hausmann, the superb cellist of Joachim’s string quartet. The two rehearsed the concerto with Brahms playing the orchestral parts in a piano reduction and with Clara Schumann in attendance. They then premiered and played it across Germany and Austria with the composer as conductor. As noted, its reception was cool, but at the very least, the piece accomplished Brahms’s goal of reconciling with his friend and partner.

The concerto, whose opus number is 102, is also closely associated with the three pieces of chamber music whose opus numbers are 99 through 101.  All four were composed in the same summer at Lake Thun in Switzerland. Op. 99 is his Second Cello Sonata, Op. 100 his Second Violin Sonata, and Op. 101 his Third Piano Trio. The three pieces can easily make up a full chamber music program for three performers. It could be said that the Double Concerto takes the process a step further, replacing the piano with the orchestra. Having so engaged with the two instruments over four consecutive compositions, Brahms’s statement about not intimately understanding their nature appears even more absurd.

As mentioned, it was also the last time Brahms ever wrote for orchestra. Songs, choral works, solo piano music, and the great chamber works with clarinet would follow, but there would be no Fifth Symphony and no fifth concerto. The orchestration, composed with sensitivity to the nature of the solo instruments, is of course brilliant. As in his other three “symphonic” concertos, it is an equal partner in the dialogue. With two solo instruments to share the spotlight, the fact that the orchestra’s role is not reduced speaks as much in advocacy for the work as anything else. The orchestral makeup matches that of the other three concertos.

Cadenzas Open the First Movement

Unlike some other romantic composers, Brahms did not eschew the traditional “orchestral exposition” in the first movements of his concertos.  In his first two (the First Piano Concerto and the much later Violin Concerto), his use of it was fully conventional, with the soloist not entering until the orchestra had presented all the themes. In the Second Piano Concerto, which closely followed the Violin Concerto, he allowed the piano to introduce some commentary in an introduction before the orchestra took completely over for a while.

In the Double Concerto, Brahms follows the model of the Second Piano Concerto. With two soloists, a cadenza in the usual spot toward the end of the movement—particularly one left up to the soloist, as his Violin Concerto was famously the last major concerto to do—was less feasible. Brahms therefore gives the solo instruments two composed cadenzas right at the beginning of the piece. The full orchestra confidently proclaims the first four bars of the main theme in the concerto’s home key of A minor. But then the solo cello immediately enters, cutting off the orchestra completely.  Its presentation is wide-ranging, both in terms of the note span and the techniques. Notably, plucked chords are included. The wind instruments then timidly enter, presenting a fragment of the movement’s sighing secondary theme. This is the cue for the solo violin, at whose entry the winds drop out.

After having only a few bars to itself to meditate on the outlines of the secondary theme, the cello enters, and the two instruments continue their cadenza at some length, introducing the elements Brahms will use throughout in his deployment of the two instruments. This includes the splitting of lines between the two instruments as mentioned above—in this case broken chords. The violin and cello also frequently play in octaves, as they do in the big scale run at the culmination of this opening cadenza.

Finally, the orchestra enters again, powerfully cutting off the cadenza and presenting the heroic, quasi-tragic main theme in full. A distinctive and forceful syncopated transitional theme is heard in the orchestral strings, which will gain in prominence. Another buildup, including a thrilling rising figure in the horns, leads to the full-hearted presentation of the “sighing” second theme only hinted at before. This rapturous theme will appear three times, each time in a different key. This time it is in F major, an unexpected peripheral key.

The return of A minor brings the orchestral exposition to a close, and the solo instruments have their turn at the themes. The cello presents the main theme, boldly and confidently, with the violin following closely behind.  They pass figuration between each other and have the first of many striking passages in contrary motion, with the same figures at the same time, but in opposite directions. The solo violin now presents the “sighing” second theme in the more closely related key of C major. The syncopated transitional theme makes another appearance, and then the orchestra has another presentation of the second theme.

The expected development section follows, now with both instruments stating the main theme. Among other elements, it includes another passage of contrary motion, this one especially rapturous, and the transformation of the forceful syncopated transitional theme into a tender, gentle variant preceding the recapitulation. At the reprise, Brahms allows the orchestra to have the initial presentation again. The secondary “sighing” theme is given in its third key, A major, the “home” major key. The solo violin is closely associated with this theme, and presents it again. There is a buildup to another full orchestral statement of that theme.

Brahms does not allow the movement to end in major, however. He returns to the tragic-heroic A-minor mood of the opening for the coda. Here the syncopated idea regains its forceful character, driving the movement home to a powerful conclusion.

The Second Movement: A Song in Octaves

The lyrical “Andante” second movement is in the related key of D major and a rather simple three-part form. The horns and woodwinds have an opening “call” of a rising fourth. The two solo instruments then present the rapturous main theme—which is based on rising and falling arpeggios, or broken chords—in sonorous octaves. The octaves are a major part of the theme’s character and flavor, and the orchestral strings also support this unison statement. The second phrase of the theme is essentially an inversion of the first one.

The woodwinds introduce the radiant, chorale-like middle section in F major. The solo instruments decorate this in a passage of ardent dialogue. The return of the main section is particularly magical, with the solo instruments playing the rising call of the fourth, the violin in double-stop octaves. Another cadenza-like passage, with cello trills under violin double-stops, leads to the opening theme, again in octaves, but now with the orchestral strings providing a new plucked background and the winds more color.

The chorale-like middle section is recalled in the coda, along with the rising fourth. The movement ends with another heart-melting passage for the solo instruments, who form full chords with the violin in double-stops.

Another “Hungarian” Finale

Brahms never missed an opportunity to pay tribute to Joachim’s Hungarian origins when writing for him. This was certainly true in the finale of the Violin Concerto, which has that flavor. Like that finale, this one is in the typical “rondo” form, which presents a main “rondo” theme in alternation with contrasting episodes. Brahms often used the “Hungarian” or “gypsy” style in his rondo finales, most notably in the First Piano Quartet, Op. 25.

Once again, the solo cello is given the first statement of the principal “rondo” theme in A minor, but the solo violin quickly takes up its continuation. It is a highly rhythmic melody with an insistent “long-short-short” rhythmic figure. After another brief alternation, the soloists come together. The entire initial rondo presentation is discreetly backed by the orchestra. But this does not last, as there is a buildup to a powerful full orchestral statement of the theme.

After a transition that involves both instruments playing full double-stop chords and a skittish woodwind commentary, the first contrasting episode is stated. It is a passionately heroic, triumphant melody in C major, played by the solo cello in double-stops. The violin joins, and with the orchestra, they build up to a climax that is aborted by a transition back to the rondo theme. This time, an oboe and bassoon get to take part in its brief statement.

The second contrasting episode is more extended. Its principal element is another “Hungarian”-style figure in long-short rhythm, largely harmonized in thirds in both solo instruments. But it also includes a syncopated figure initially played gently by clarinets and bassoon, and later taken up more vigorously by the solo instruments. While not explicit, this at least hints at a reference to the very similar forceful syncopated transitional theme from the first movement. The woodwinds take it again as the solo instruments play dovetailing arpeggios in contrary motion. The long-short rhythm returns in the full orchestra to conclude the lengthy central episode.

The rondo theme now returns with a full presentation akin to its first one, culminating in a full orchestral statement. The triumphant first contrasting theme returns, now in A major, the “home” major key. It is now played by both soloists from the outset. Unlike in the first movement, the arrival of A major is decisive, and the minor key will not return.

In the coda, Brahms slows down for a transformed major-key version of the rondo theme, gently sung by the woodwinds with light and rapid decorations from the soloists. This reverie is cut off assertively, and the concerto is brought to its conclusion by the soloists, playing another victorious variant of the rondo theme in triplet rhythm.

If nothing else, the conclusion of this finale, whose “overcoming” assertion of major over minor is reminiscent of the First Symphony and even the much earlier First Piano Concerto, is enough to leave modern audiences scratching their heads about the negative opinions of the piece that were aired when it was first performed. It is not only the equal of the composer’s three solo concertos that preceded it, but it can also make a credible claim as the greatest multi-instrument concerto since Bach’s Brandenburgs.

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