The Double Concerto of Brahms

When Brahms composed his last orchestral work, the Double Concerto for Violin and Cello, Op. 102, he wrote the solo parts specifically for Hausmann and Joachim, which he sent to them before they first tried it out together. The October 18, 1887 premiere in Cologne was followed by performances in Wiesbaden on November 17th, Frankfurt (18th), and Basel (20th). It was featured on the New Year’s Day concert at the Leipzig Gewandhaus in 1888. This was the occasion where Tchaikovsky was in town and went out drinking with Brahms. He heard the concert and admitted it made no impression on him.

Premieres and Initial Reviews

Themes that emerge from the reviews of the first performances include the mixed reception. The public responds enthusiastically, but the critics are unsure what to make of it. They often wish to be more prepared and have another chance to understand it before making a judgment. The “thankless” solo parts and how they do not stand out enough from the orchestra is another frequent complaint.

Wiesbaden November 17, 1887, conducted by Johannes Brahms

“Virtuosos who are applause-needy will therefore stay just as far away from the new work as from the Brahms Violin Concerto, whose long unrecognized value is now being appreciated more and more by all true artists.1E.U., Neue Zeitschrift für Musik (1888): 131.

Leipzig, January 1, 1888, Johannes Brahms

Soloists who only go for external success for themselves will want to avoid this concerto, but all the more joyfully will those real artists rejoice, for whom the main thing is the fine substance of the whole and the wish to contribute to its raising up. —Musikalisches Wochenblatt (1888): 25.2“…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.

The composer apparently wants, as in his D major violin concerto, not to flatter so much the ambition of the concertizing virtuoso, as rather produce new evidence of his symphonic strengths: the true symphonic construction and design throughout is for the most part admirable, and if the thematic material does not pull off any surprises, the high quality 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” (“Eingänglichkeit”) is not characteristic of this novelty.3“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.” –Bernhard Vogel, Neue Zeitschrift für Musik

Berlin, February 6, 1888, Hans von Bülow

After the Berlin premiere with Hans von Bülow and the Philharmonic, reviews were not kind. The Signale began, “A cruel disappointment was waiting for many of those who had arrived with great expectations for this newest Brahms.” The Neue Zeitschrift wrote, “The anxiously-avoiding-any-sensual-allure Double Concerto by Brahms brought only a succès d’estime.”4“…mit dem jedem sinnlichen Reiz ängstlich aus dem Wege gehenden Doppel-Concert von Brahms thatsächlich nur zu einem Succès d’estime brachten.” W. Langhans, NZfM (1888): 253. The Norddeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung thought that at least it was better than the other premiere on the program, C.V. Stanford’s “Irish” Symphony, and although it disapproved of the conductor joining in the applause for the Concerto, conceded: “The Double Concerto is a classy work with engaging ideas and glorious 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.”5“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.”Quoted in Muck, 108.

London, February 15 and 25, 1888

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.6“Brahms’s New Concerto London Symphony Concert: Brahms, Concerto (Double Concerto) in a for Violin, Violoncello and Orchestra; Joachim, Hausmann (the Times).” The Musical World 67, no. 7 (1888): 134-35.

For the Times, after hearing the first movement, “the general impression left upon the mind was almost a blank.” As for the second movement, “the solo instruments gained due prominence, carrying on a graceful dialogue, which those given to ‘programme music’ could easily construe into a tender love duet.” The Finale began well but ended too soon; a coda was lacking. The Musical Times agreed about the Finale and even advised Brahms: “It would be well for him to subject this portion of the Concerto to revision before submitting it to the world in print.”7“London Symphony Concerts.” The Musical Times and Singing Class Circular 29, no. 541 (1888): 151.

Vienna, December 23, 1888, Hans Richter

The Vienna correspondent for the Neue Zeitschrift gave the harsh verdict: it was a “startlingly empty, idea-impoverished and monotonous composition.”8“…eine bestürzend leere, gedankenarme und stimmungseintönige Composition…” NZfM (1888): 307.

The Musikalisches Wochenblatt went into more judicious detail:

The first movement seems to be the most significant in thematic construction, we especially liked a bold, almost demonic trill part in it. The beautiful sounding Andante, whose lovely mild tune reminded us of a well known Swedish folk song, spoke to us in a more melodic way. We were the least enthusiastic about the last movement, except for the D major part.9Musikalisches Wochenblatt (1889): 66.

Later performances

Berlin, 1897

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.10Musical Courier (1897): 113.

Berlin, 1900: Meiningen Kapelle

“Despite the impeccable performance, it brought little joy to most of the audience.”11“…das allerdings trotz der tadellosen Wiedergabe wohl den meisten Zuhören wenig Freude bereitete…” E. v Pirani, dated 30 October, NZfM (1900): 607.

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