Reactions to the Concerto for Violin and Cello, Op. 102 by Brahms

The Brahms Double Concerto was set up to be a success: there were plenty of well-wishers eager for another orchestral work from the famous composer. It featured the violin virtuoso Joseph Joachim, who had premiered Brahms’s Violin Concerto some years earlier, and Robert Hausmann, who had premiered Brahms’s Cello Sonata in F major the year before. However, almost everyone was disappointed by their first experience of the work during the 1887-88 season. It was hard to hear the soloists, which is not supposed to happen in a concerto! Even when they emerged from the orchestra, the registers of the cello and the violin were too different, and their parts were not conventionally virtuosic. The first movement was in a vehement but gloomy a minor. At least the slow movement adhered to the conventions of beauty and melody. But the last movement was not cheerful enough, and ended too abruptly.

Eduard Hanslick had time to prepare for his review of the Vienna premiere that was more than a year after the first performance. But he knew that he didn’t like the piece. Neither did his friend, Theodor Billroth, who had studied it at the piano. In anticipation of the Vienna performance, Billroth described the work to Hanslick as 

Dreary, boring, product of an old man. If the “Zigeunerlieder” had not been composed later I would have thought our Johannes was done! I know of no more negligible work of our friend–and yet it is precisely this work that is especially dear to him, that came from the heart. What an incomprehensible human soul!…I’d prefer not to go to the concert, but of course that’s not an option.1“Trostlos, langweilig, die reine Greisenproduktion. Wären die Zigeunerlieder nicht später komponiert, ich glaubte, es sei aus mit unserem Johannes!…ich kenne kein unbedeutenderes Werk unseres lieben Freundes–und doch ist ihm gerade dieses Werk besonders ans Herz gewachsen, aus dem Herzen entsprungen, Unbegreifliche Menschenseele!…Am liebsten ginge ich gar nicht ins Konzert, doch das geht auch nicht!” Brahms-Billroth Briefwechsel, 421.  

In his review, Hanslick observed that “there is inherently something problematic about the genre” when there are two soloists. Compared to a play, “it’s like a story with two heroes that we admire and are interested in equally, but that only get in the way of each other. If there is a form that rests on the power of its conquering hero, it is the concerto.” Later in the review he alternatively described it like a play with all the characters splendidly written and acted, but without a plot.2“So ein Doppelconcert gleicht einem Drama, das anstatt eines Helden deren zwei besitzt, welche, unsere gleiche Theilnahme und Bewunderung ansprechend, einander nur im Wege stehen. Wenn man aber von einer Musikform behaupten darf, daß sie auf der Uebermacht eines siegreichen Helden beruht, so ist’s das Concert. …Gleiche Instrumente (zwei Violinen, zwei Klaviere) fügen sich, wie die ältere Musikliteratur uns zeigt, schon leichter zu einem Concert, als zwei Prinzipalstimmen von so verschiedener Tonhöhe, wie Violine und Violoncell. …beide Soloinstrumente nicht bloß vom Orchester, sondern obendrein von einander in den Schatten gedrängt werden….nur selten schwingen sie sich für längere Zeit siegreich über die mächtige Orchesterfluth, in welche sie alsbald wieder untertauchen. So gleicht das Doppelconcert mehr einer Symphonie, welche von einer Geige und einem Violoncell mit seinem Passagenwerk ausgeschmückt wird…. So empfangen wir denn nachgerade den Eindruck eines Theaterstückes, in welchem alle Personen sehr gescheit und geistreich sprechen, wo es aber zu keiner Handlung kommen will.” Eduard Hanslick, Aus dem Tagebuche eines Musikers. Kritiken und Schilderungen, 3rd ed. Berlin: Allgemeiner Verein für Deutsche Litteratur (1892).

In his biography of Brahms, Max Kalbeck took a different approach to the problematic piece. He framed it as a work that was strategically written to bring about a reconciliation with his best friend. “The composer’s idea was that the memory of the happy days of working together with Joachim would help him win back the lost friend, and the cello offers to be the kindly mediator, the personal cello of Robert Hausmann, who had asked the master for a concert piece.” This explains the opening of the work, which begins with a cello solo, and is then joined by the violin to extend the cadenza. Kalbeck also claimed that the work had originated as a fifth symphony, and that Brahms had intended to write a second double concerto, but was discouraged by the poor reception of the first.3Max Kalbeck, Johannes Brahms. Bd. 4,1 (1886-91). Berlin: Deutsche Brahms-Gesellschaft, 1914 (2nd ed.)

On the performance at the Leipzig Gewandhaus, New Year’s Day, 1888:

  • Tchaikovsky’s reminiscences included attending this performance. “Despite the wonderful performance, this concerto did not make the least impression on me.”4“Dieses Konzert brachte trotz der vortrefflichen Ausführung nicht den geringsten Eindruck auf mich hervor…..” Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky, Musikalische erinnerungen und feuilletons (Berlin: Heinrich Stümcke, 1899), 42. https://hdl.handle.net/2027/nnc1.cu01717022
  • “Here it is apparently the wish of the composer, as in his D major violin concerto, not so much to flatter the aspirations of the concertizing virtuoso as to produce new evidence of his symphonic strengths; so the true symphonic construction and design throughout is for the most part admirable, while the thematic material in itself does not pull off any surprises, at the same time the high-quality classiness is never in question; it will take some time and longer study, i.e. require more frequent repetitions, before the work can hope for the prize of warmer support; for the comfortable virtue of “easy listening” is not characteristic of this novelty.”5“Der Komponist will augenscheinlich auch hier, wie in seinem Dur-Violin Concert, nicht so sehr dem Ehrgeiz des concertirenden Virtuosen schmeicheln, als vielmehr einen neuen Beweis seiner symphonischen Stärke erbringen: so ist denn auch hier durchweg die echt symphonische Anlage und Ausgestaltung am meisten bewundernswerth, während das Themenmaterial von Haus aus auf Überraschungen nicht abzielt, wenngleich ihm vornehme Gediegenheit nirgends auszusprechen ist; es wird einiger Zeit und längeres Studium, d.h. häufigerer Wiederholungen bedürfen, ehe das Werk auf den Gewinn wärmerer Sympathien hoffen darf; denn die bequeme Tugend der ‘Eingänglichkeit’ ist dieser Neuheit nicht eigen.” Signed Bernhard Vogel. Musikalisches Wochenblatt (1888): 25.
  • “Soloists who are only in it for themselves will want to avoid this work.”6the soloists are “durchaus nicht die Hauptträger des Ganzen, sondern nur bevorzugte Organe für die Darlegung der Intentionen des Componisten. Solisten, die nur nach äusserem Erfolg für sich selbst ausgehen, werden dieses Concert gern vermeiden, um so freudiger werden ihm aber jene wirklichen Künstler zujubeln, denen der Edelgehalt des Ganzen und der Wunsch, zu dessen Hebung nach Kräften beizutragen, die Hauptsache ist.” Musikalisches Wochenblatt (1888): 25.

On the Berlin performance, February 4, 1888:

  • The Norddeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung thought that at least it wasn’t as bad as the other new piece on the concert (Stanford’s “Irish” Symphony): “The Double Concerto is a classy work with engaging ideas and marvelous sound effects. The solo voices are perhaps too fully worked into the orchestra….The working out is smooth, and the symphony maintains a cool refinement throughout.”7“Das Doppelkonzert ist ein vornehmes Werk mit fesselnden musikalischen Gedanken und prächtigen Klangwirkungen. Die Solostimmen sind vielleicht zu sehr ins Orchester hineingearbeitet….Die Arbeit ist glatt, durchweg wahrt die Symphonie eine kühle Vornehmheit….” 
  • “The anxiously-avoiding-any-sensual-allure Double Concerto by Brahms was actually only a succès d’estime.”8“…mit dem jedem sinnlichen Reiz ängstlich aus dem Wege gehenden Doppel-Concert von Brahms thatsächlich nur zu einem Succès d’estime brachten.” W. Langhans, “Rückblick auf die Berliner Musiksaison 1887-88,” Neue Zeitschrift für Musik (1888): 253.

On the London performance, February 14, 1888:

  • The Times: “Of Brahms’s concerto it is not easy to speak definitely after a single hearing, for although, as in most of his later works, the composer writes with greater simplicity and with more condensation of thought than in his earlier days, there is much that would require careful study to be thoroughly appreciated….No one but Brahms among living masters could have written this work, which shows all the earnestness of purpose, all the freedom from mere clap-trap, to which this composer owes his leading position. Of the performance it would be difficult to speak in too favourable terms. It was perfect, and final in the sense that all subsequent interpreters will simply have to adopt the reading of Herr Joachim at the violin and of Herr Hausmann at the violoncello.”9From The Times, reprinted in The Musical World 67, no. 7 (1888): 134-35.
  • The Musical Times on the Third Movement: “A rare fault with Brahms, it is patchy in construction, and the composer seems to have felt that he was not doing his best, for he brings the work to an abrupt conclusion without the imposing peroration for which one looks. It would be well for him to subject this portion of the Concerto to revision before submitting it to the world in print. With such distinguished executants the performance could not be otherwise than magnificent, and the reception of the work was nothing short of enthusiastic.” 10“London Symphony Concerts.” The Musical Times and Singing Class Circular 29, no. 541 (1888): 150-51.

On the performance at the Stuttgart Musikfest, June 23, 1888:

“There is a basic mistake: it is called concerto, but isn’t one. I expect in a concerto that the solo instruments appear “concerted”, that they are essentially separated from the main body of the orchestra and that they are written expressly for soloists. But none of this is the case here. Violin and cello form two obligato voices, that emerge at times, but in general are so melded with the orchestra that often one doesn’t even hear them. The whole is a symphonic work in the true Brahms sonata style, very accomplished, as everything he does is, but so “internalized” in the working out that one is -not warmed by it.”11“Es hat nämlich einen Grundfehler: es heisst Concert, ist aber keines. Bei einem “Concert” erwarte ich, dass die Soloinstrumente “concertirend” auftreten, dass sie sich von Gesammtkörper des Orchesters wesentlich abheben, und dass sie dankbar für die Solisten sind. Das Alles ist aber hier nicht der Fall. Violine und Violoncell bilden hier nun zwei obligate Stimmen, die zuweilen hervortreten, im Allgemeinen aber sich mit dem Orchester so verschmelzen, dass man sie -öfters gar nicht hört. Das Ganze ist ein symphonisches Werk in echt Brahms’schem Sonatenstil, sehr gediegen, wie Alles, was er schafft, aber so “verinnerlicht” in der Arbeit, dass man -dabei nicht warm wird.” Richard Pohl, Musikalisches Wochenblatt 19 (1888): 365.

On the Vienna performance, December 1888:

  • “…a startlingly empty, idea-impoverished and monotonous composition.”12“…eine bestürzend leere, gedankenarme und stimmungseintönige Composition.” Neue Zeitschrift für Musik (1889): 307.
  • “At least on first hearing and without knowledge of the score, it was not as convincing as other creations from Brahms’s most recent period: his violin concerto or the two last symphonies. The first movement seems to be the most significant in thematic construction, we especially liked in it a bold, almost demonic trill part. The beautiful sounding Andante, whose lovely mild tune reminded us of a well known Swedish folk song, spoke more to us in a melodic way. We were the least enthusiastic about the last movement, except for the D major part. But it’s always possible that repeated hearings would lead us to a much more favorable opinion of the entire remarkable tone poem, than a constantly uncertain, completely unprepared first impression.”13Musikalisches Wochenblatt 20 (1889): 66.

Reactions to later performances

The soloists persisted with performances over the next two decades. Hausmann played it with other violinists, including his two other colleagues (Wirth and Halir) of the Joachim Quartet, and a future one (Karl Klingler). In Berlin in 1897 the gossipy Musical Courier commented:

The double concerto is one of the weakest and hardest to digest of all of Brahms’s works, and it was and proved tedious last night, despite the fact that Joachim played the violin and Professor Hausmann the cello solo part. Both artists were technically not in the very best of trim, and especially the grand old man Joachim seemed to be decidedly nervous and ill at ease. The public did not notice or care about it, for after each of the three movements, and especially at the close of the concerto, all hands were strongly applauded.

Three years later, in October of 1900, with the same performers in the same place, there was flagging enthusiasm: “Despite the impeccable performance it brought about little joy to most of the audience.” 14“das allerdings trotz der tadellosen Wiedergabe wohl den meisten Zuhören wenig Freude bereitete.” Eugenio di Pirani, Neue Zeitschrift für Musik (1900): 307.But when the virtuoso cellist Julius Klengel took up the challenge with Felix Berber, the concert master of the Gewandhaus Orchestra, the response was surprisingly positive in Vienna in 1902 and in 1905 in Berlin and Leipzig.

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2 thoughts on “Reactions to the Concerto for Violin and Cello, Op. 102 by Brahms

  1. Ouch! As far as Hanslick’s reservations are concerned, did he have the same bad opinion of the Bach Double Concerto?

    1. I haven’t found a review of that work by Hanslick. But he did say in his Double Concerto review that two of the same kind of instrument was better than two different instruments.

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