Brahms Double Concerto

Whatever could have possessed Johannes Brahms to compose a concerto for the unusual combination of violin, cello and orchestra? Had the most consciously traditional composer of the Romantic period become tired of the hallowed 19th century relationship between solo instrument and orchestra after having composed two piano concertos and one violin concerto? Given Brahms’s love for the concertante forms of 18th century music, it has been proposed that he wanted to breathe new life into the concerto grosso form; nothing in the score, however, has any resemblance to baroque compositional style, the two solo parts in particular being far from it. The violin and the cello do not only alternate; they play so often together that we get the impression of a giant eight-stringed instrument, one that is amply suited to its confrontations with the full orchestra.

Brahms composed the concerto for violinist Joseph Joachim and cellist Robert Hausmann. The 54-year-old composer, who composed the Double Concerto during a holiday in Switzerland, was intending to kill two birds with one stone: he wanted — in vain, as it turned out — to renew his former friendship with Joachim, as the two had fallen out over Joachim’s separation; Brahms had taken the side of Joachim’s wife. His second intention was to fulfil a promise made to Hausmann that he would compose a concerto for him.

The lyrical richness of this music seems to reflect Brahms’s enjoyment of his summer holiday. Although the violin and the cello have equal shares of the musical material, the cello frequently takes the initiative when a theme comes to be launched. The first movement provides a fine example of how Brahms could combine his well-known sturdy and awkward rhythms with irresistibly flowing melodies. It is also exciting to observe how the solo instruments unexpectedly interrupt the orchestra as if to take part in a group conversation. The slow central movement offers a wealth of poetic thoughts. Could there be anything more quintessentially Brahmsian than the principal theme, played by violin and cello in octaves? Playfulness takes the upper hand in the last movement. It may not sound as gypsy-like as the finale to his Violin Concerto, but even here we can nevertheless hear the sounds of an occasional tribute to his Hungarian friend Joachim.

Translation: Peter Lockwood