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Views And Reviews: Brahms's Piano Concerto No. 1

With words to match a marvellously well-crafted musical piece, Paul Serotsky tells of the creation and the sentiment that went into Brahams’s first piano concerto.

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Brahms (1833-97) – Piano Concerto No. 1

If, as the saying goes, fools rush in, then Brahms was an angel. In his late teens he was still scratching a living as a teacher and “pub pianist” when his talent was spotted by the Hungarian virtuoso violinist Eduard Reményi, who took him on as a touring accompanist – and introduced him to Joachim. Impressed by the youngster’s compositions, Joachim brought Brahms to the attention of Liszt and Schumann. Robert and Clara Schumann were sufficiently enthused to take Brahms under their collective wing, Robert even proclaiming Brahms a budding genius. Yet, up until then, Brahms’s output amounted to only a few modest piano pieces. Already, it’s clear that he preferred high quality to vast quantity.

With Schumann’s persistent encouragement, and some trepidation, Brahms dipped his toes into the deeper waters of symphonic composition. He sketched three movements, with which – as would so often be the case – he was less than happy. Then, in 1854 came the news that Schumann, whose mental health was declining, had tried to kill himself and had been committed to an asylum.

Immediately, Brahms dropped everything and went straight to Düsseldorf, giving what help he could to Clara and the seven children. This was hardly the reaction of a mere pupil or protegé. Neither, I would suggest, is it the reaction of a young man with a mere schoolboy crush, such as Brahms was getting for the older Clara. Wisely keeping such puerile passions to himself, his selfless support demonstrated the depth of his love and respect for the entire family.

Understandably feeling the need to express his sympathy, and find release for his own emotional turmoil, Brahms began to convert the “failed” symphonic sketches into a musical tribute. Firstly, he considered a sonata for two pianos, although some sources suggest that this also was “work in progress”, which he blended with the symphonic sketches. Not that it matters: either way the outcome was the First Piano Concerto, very much the kind of musical response to circumstances that Schumann himself was wont to make.

However, Brahms was not about to sacrifice principles and craftsmanship on the altar of the “quick fix”: to create something worthy of his intentions took almost five years. By then Schumann was dead and buried, which may explain the in-built emotional progression – of grieving, remembrance and healing.

In any event, this being his first major orchestral work, his “angel” demanded he tread carefully on the technical front. It’s conceivable that it finally saw the light of day only because his friend Joachim, then director of the Hanover court orchestra, constantly discussed his work and provided opportunities to test ideas. Ah, but what ideas! In 1860, only a year after this work’s première, Brahms would be condemned as a stuffy reactionary, for signing that infamous manifesto opposing Liszt’s “New German School”. Yet, Brahms was no such thing: it was just that his “way forward” lay along a different path. As if to prove the point, at its second performance in Leipzig his concerto was actually hissed by the baffled audience.

It seems that they were expecting something along the lines of the fashionable “virtuoso concerto”, with the glamorous piano hogging the limelight and the humble orchestra in the rôle of “supporting cast”. As would be borne out by his subsequent concertos, Brahms was having none of this: he viewed the concerto more as a large-scale “symphony with obbligato soloist”, an integrated, co-operative venture following its own evolutionary path from the Baroque prototype. Consternation would have set in with the piano’s very first entry – not, as would be expected, re-stating the forceful main subject but, apparently, merely tinkering with a subsidiary offshoot. However, from our perspective it’s obvious (isn’t it?) that Brahms was simply slipping the soloist into an extant argument – and firmly planting the piano in its proper place.

Brahms also stretched the form, almost breaking the elastic.

1. Maestoso. Although the striding first subject, straining and shrieking fit to bust a gut, struck terror into some timid souls, it was nevertheless as clear-cut as the subsequent tender second subject. Except, it isn’t – this “second subject” is one of several subsidiary ideas in a first subject group, as is confirmed when the towering resurgence – in a seething three-part canon! – of the main subject disgorges a further, rhythmically propulsive theme that itself comprises two important motives.

Here the piano enters, working this last theme back to yet another main subject statement, the keyboard compressing that shrill shrieking into a nasty noise. But – where’s the second subject? Brahms prepares the movement’s emotional core with consummate delicacy. The piano, musing on the “tender” theme but becoming increasingly anxious, is lovingly embraced by the orchestra, and then – the spirit of Schumann moves upon the face of the music.

The second subject at first becomes warmly resonant, but soon retreats into extended meditation punctuated by remote horn calls, before being violently interrupted. With so much development going on around it, the formal development section is correspondingly concise, seemingly a summary of Brahms’s reaction to Schumann’s plight. Running from vehement turmoil through regret, aggression, and feather-light rippling, it culminates in a brutally hammered climax.

The complex first subject group’s ensuing reprise is nowhere near literal, being telescoped, truncated, and thoroughly re-orchestrated. By contrast, the second is virtually unchanged, apart from the addition of portentously pulsing tympani just prior to the bludgeoning coda..

Brahms greatly expanded the potency of sonata-form whilst substantially diffusing its outline. The former paved the way (dare we say?) for Bruckner’s “symphonic boa-constrictors”. The latter enabled him to express the anguish and confusion he’d felt, without compromising his musical integrity. If this isn’t progress, then I don’t know what is.

The remaining movements are considerably less complicated!

2. Adagio. Brahms, who often addressed Schumann as “Meinherr Domine”, matched the opening phrase of his theme to the words “Benedictus qui venit in nomine Dominus” (“Blessed are those who come in the name of the Lord”). Even without that clue we can’t miss the initially prayerful tone. However, given the aforementioned association, implying that these variations relate more to Brahms’s feelings towards Schumann than anything specifically religious, perhaps reverential would be a better word.

The movement is an asymmetrical “arch” form, broadly falling into six sections. (1) “Meditative”: rapt theme, serene background. (2) “Celestial”: piano “pricking stars from heaven’s vault”. (3) “Distressed”: descending from agitation into gloom. (4) “Purposeful”: forceful, inspiring. (5) “Celestial”. (6) “Meditative”.

3. Rondo – Allegro non troppo. Brahms rounds off with a rollicking romp of a rondo. Yet, whilst catering generously for the lust of sonic hedonists, the composer’s patented ingenuity engine is as busy as ever. The crystal-clear A1-B1-A2-B2-F-A3-B3-Cadenza-Coda layout conceals numerous neat touches. Most obviously, the two themes are continually varied in supremely seductive ways. The lead-in to B1 has pungent overtones of the Emperor Concerto which, taken with the character of the theme itself, declares a triumvirate of “Beethoven – Schumann – Brahms” – a tad immodest maybe, but entirely justified!

The fugue F affiliates A and B, whilst B1's tail sprouts a brassy rising call (from A), which recurs in B3's tail and thus introduces the cadenza. Thus Brahms casts over his rondo the shadow of sonata-form – a real coup de grace! Finally, a couple of teases: after the cadenza, firstly B then A appear in a winding-down, accentuating the dash for the line – which is then interrupted by a further, brief cadential display!

After the Leipzig performance a rueful Brahms wrote to Joachim, saying that he was only “experimenting” and “feeling his way”, wryly remarking that nevertheless the hissing was perhaps a bit harsh. Significantly, his work was subsequently championed by someone who understood the work better than anyone – Clara Schumann herself.

© Paul Serotsky


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