The Brahms Double Concerto at the Proms Concerts

On the occasion of the London premiere of the Brahms Double Concerto, Op. 102 on February 14, 1888, The Times newspaper wrote:

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.

The BBC’s website has an archive of all the programs from the Proms concert seasons dating back to 1895. I was amazed to find that the Brahms Double Concerto has been performed 54 times over the years, beginning in 1900. All the Brahms symphonies and other concertos have more performances, but it is still surprising that this work was so popular.1The number of performances for the other concertos: Piano, Op. 15: 74; Piano, Op. 83: 80; Violin, Op. 77: 94. For the Symphonies: No. 1: 85; No. 2: 89; No. 3: 68; No. 4: 83. Between 1932 and 1947 it was on the program every season.

Also interesting is that up until 1945, there were just as many women soloists on both instruments than men (a woman was the violinist 14 times and the cellist 13 times). Of the 27 concerts with the Double Concerto before the end of WWII, the soloists were both women 11 times. The sisters May and Beatrice Harrison played three years in a row (1920-22). Another repeat female performer of this work was the cellist May Mukle (1924, ’26, ’29, and ’34).2The cellist who played this work the most on the Proms concerts was André Navarra (1952, ’53, ’54, ’56, ’58, ’60, ’63). There were two violinists who performed it five times: Jean Pougnet (1939, ’42, ’49, ’50, ’55) and Endre Wolf (1954, ’56, ’58, ’60, ’63).

After WWII, the cellist Zara Nelsova played in 1950 and in 1974. Tessa Robbins was the violin soloist in 1957, as was Antje Weithaas in 1993. But that is all: of the 26 times it has been played since 1945, the soloists were male except for two times on both instruments. The earlier prevalence in female soloists can be attributed to the period including the two world wars, when male musicians were turned into soldiers. But it’s remarkable how female soloists for this work disappeared almost completely after the war.

The upshot of this is that Brahms became very popular in Britain in the 20th century, with even the Double Concerto becoming part of the standard repertoire at the Proms. It has only been programmed twice in the 21st century, however, following the downward trend of the 1990s (performances in 1992 and ’93), 1980s (1981, ’83, and ’86), and 1970s (1974, ’76).

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