I. Allegro non troppo
III. Allegro giocoso, ma non troppo vivace
Most of the violin concertos from the 19th century we hear in the concert hall today were written for the eminent virtuosos of their time (in some cases, composer and violinist were one and the same). Very few, in fact, collaborated to the extent that Johannes Brahms (1833–1897) and the great Hungarian violinist Joseph Joachim (1831–1907) did to create a work on which the performer made such an indelible mark. As such, Brahms’s Violin Concerto remains a uniquely weighty example of the genre from its time that blurred the boundaries between composer and performer, soloist and orchestra, concerto and symphony.
It was August 1878, 25 years into their friendship, when Brahms surprised Joachim with the first movement of a violin concerto he had been secretly working on, requesting feedback on whatever the violinist found “difficult, awkward, impossible.” Delighted, Joachim responded, “Most of it is playable, much of it violinistically quite original; but whether it will be enjoyable to play in an overheated hall, I cannot confirm unless I play through the whole piece.”
Over the next months, they worked on the concerto together in person and via correspondence until the premiere on New Year’s Day in the Leipzig Gewandhaus, with Joachim performing and Brahms conducting. This first effort was a disappointment; having only received the complete violin part four days before, Joachim was under prepared, and Brahms had been nervous, while the audience was coolly polite and the critics ambivalent. Two weeks later, in Vienna, Joachim played the concerto again (this time conducted by Joseph Hellmesberger) with much better results, though the critics there remained reserved. Learning from these performances, Brahms and Joachim together continued to tinker with the score, adjusting issues of balance (such as thinning out the orchestration in places) and refining violinistic details, even as Joachim continued to perform it. In August, after one last in-person consultation (during which they played it through for Clara Schumann), they agreed on the Concerto’s final version, which was published in October.
As several scholars have revealed, Brahms didn’t just write his Violin Concerto for Joachim, he wrote it with him. He consulted the Joachim not only to be sure that his violin writing was idiomatically natural, but also to create a solo part that best embodied the performance style for which the great violinist was revered. Beyond his exceptional technical skill, Joachim was celebrated for his uncompromising attitude to musical quality and fidelity to the composer’s score. Furthermore, as musicologist Karen Leistra-Jones has discovered, he was especially admired for his “uncanny ability to present composed musical works as though they were being improvised, created on the spot through a mysterious fusion of Joachim himself with the mind or spirit of the composer.” As you’ll hear, it’s this quality of improvisatory spontaneity in Joachim’s playing that Brahms, through working with him, captures in the violin part. Meanwhile, the orchestra isn’t merely a backdrop but is shaped by rigorous symphonic processes, through which the violin solo intervenes and is interwoven.
The tension between these two expressive worlds is most palpable in the Concerto’s substantial first movement. It begins with the orchestra introducing several important motifs: 1) a falling then rising arpeggiated line of calm character; 2) robustly bold octaves; 3) gently winding phrases; and 4) confident snappy rhythms that lead to the soloist’s entry. Throughout the movement, each of these elements recurs and undergoes transformation, while the violin generally ruminates and decorates this material in a free and expansive way. In the lyrical second theme area, the violin interjects an expressive new theme that wasn’t in the orchestral exposition. The conflict between the two worlds escalates in the development section, but eventually culminates in an exuberant return of the opening theme for the recapitulation.
In the traditional point for a cadenza, Brahms had Joachim create his own, which, notably, Joachim wrote out rather than improvising one (today, his cadenza is still the most often played). A serious composition unto itself, the cadenza revisits all the movement’s main themes and motifs. At its conclusion, the violin leads into a final tranquil restatement of the opening theme, which the clarinet and oboe then take up, as the violin continues with a sublime extension that has it reaching ever higher. (This exquisite moment was the result of Brahms accepting Joachim’s advice to make his original conception of the theme less “uncomfortable” for the violin.) Gradually, the violin emerges out of its idyll, liquifying its line into flowing improvisatory phrases, after which the energy picks up and draws the movement to an emphatic close.
The Concerto is rounded off by two shorter movements of contrasting character. Extending the “idyll” from near the end of the “Allegro,” the “Adagio” opens with a gorgeous melody sung by solo oboe. As in the first movement, the violin then takes the theme and muses on it, thoroughly exploring its lyrical and emotional possibilities. Following a rhapsodic middle section, the melody reappears in the oboe, now with the violin weaving around it. Together, they continue in a tender exchange to the movement’s serene end. The Finale is an affectionate tribute to Joachim. In the style hongrois (a blend of Hungarian musical elements and the fluid virtuosity of Romani performing style), the violin is fully unleashed in this boisterous rondo, which alternately features rigorous dance rhythms, florid runs, and charming delicate melodies.
Program note by Hannah Chan-Hartley, PhD
Since its debut in 1969, the National Arts Centre (NAC) Orchestra has been praised for the passion and clarity of its performances, its visionary educational programs, and its prominent role in nurturing Canadian creativity. Under the leadership of Music Director Alexander Shelley, the NAC Orchestra reflects the fabric and values of Canada, reaching and representing the diverse communities we live in with daring programming, powerful storytelling, inspiring artistry, and innovative partnerships.
Alexander Shelley began his tenure as Music Director in 2015, following Pinchas Zukerman’s 16 seasons at the helm. Principal Associate Conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and former Chief Conductor of the Nuremberg Symphony Orchestra (2009–2017), he has been in demand around the world, conducting the Rotterdam Philharmonic, DSO Berlin, Leipzig Gewandhaus, and Stockholm Philharmonic, among others, and maintains a regular relationship with the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie and the German National Youth Orchestra.
Each season, the NAC Orchestra features world-class artists such as the newly appointed Artist-in-Residence James Ehnes, Angela Hewitt, Joshua Bell, Xian Zhang, Gabriela Montero, Stewart Goodyear, Jan Lisiecki, and Principal Guest Conductor John Storgårds. As one of the most accessible, inclusive, and collaborative orchestras in the world, the NAC Orchestra uses music as a universal language to communicate the deepest of human emotions and connect people through shared experiences.