We are approaching our very exciting next concert of the 2016-17 season, on Saturday 25th February, and enjoyed a very good rehearsal on Mahler’s Blumine and Brahms’s First Piano Concerto last night in the Pilkington Building in Chatham Dockyard. Our conductor Peter Bassano had a travel mishap which meant that he arrived half an hour late for the rehearsal. We all felt it was important to use every minute of the time available to us, so I rehearsed the Brahms in the dual roles of conductor and soloist until Peter arrived. Brahms’s First Piano Concerto is not the easiest work to conduct and play at the same time, but CRSO members were, as always, very patient and helpful. We worked intensely on the first movement of the Brahms, and I felt that learnt a lot from the experience. I was, nonetheless, happy to see Peter arrive so that I could revert to a more familiar role as pianist; I’m sure that the orchestra was, too…
I love Brahms’s First Piano Concerto, and have felt moved and inspired by it from the moment that I heard it for the first time, when I was 13 years old. The next day, I took the score out of the Kent music library and started learning the piece, and I’ve been thinking about it, and performing it on occasion, ever since. As we get closer to Saturday’s performance, I thought I’d jot down a few ideas about the work for those who are intending to come to the concert.
I experience Brahms’s first piano concerto as a diary of friendship between Brahms, Robert and Clara Schumann, and as a journey of artistic self-discovery for the young Brahms. The influence of Robert Schumann and his (much younger) wife Clara on Brahms’s life was profound. Brahms was an unknown 20-year-old musician from Hamburg when he introduced himself to the Schumanns in Düsseldorf in September 1853. Soon afterwards Robert wrote a famous article entitled “Neue Bahnen” (“New paths”, Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, October 1853) in which he acclaimed Brahms as a musician “to whom it was vouchsafed to give the highest and most ideal expression to the tendencies of the age…” The Schumanns opened Brahms’s eyes to what life could be like in a cultured and musically dedicated environment. Robert Schumann immediately took the role of Brahms’s mentor and friend, helped Brahms find a publisher for his early works (Opp.1-6), and encouraged Brahms to study the extraordinary collection of scores which Schumann had brought together in his home. For her part, Clara Schumann, one of the most famous pianists of the 19th century, welcomed Brahms into their home like a son.
This wonderful creative environment was soon shattered, however. Robert Schumann’s mental state was often precarious, and in February 1854 he suffered to such an extent that he tried to commit suicide on the 27th by throwing himself into the Rhine. He was rescued, but taken at his own request to an asylum in the nearby town of Endenich, as he “no longer had his mind under control and did not know what he might end up doing in the night”. In an effort to calm the patient, doctors forbad Clara to visit Robert in the asylum; Brahms, however, was allowed to visit Schumann regularly and became Clara’s main source of information about her husband. These visits affected Brahms deeply, and he withheld many upsetting observations from Clara. Robert Schumann never recovered, and died in Endenich on 29th July 1856. In the midst of this emotional turmoil, another challenge emerged. Brahms fell deeply in love with Clara – she was to be the love of his life – and, unsurprisingly, he does not seem to have known how to cope with it; Clara’s feeling towards Brahms also appear to have been complex, contradictory and confused.
The First Piano Concerto was written between 1854 and 1858 – the period of Schumann’s illness, death and its aftermath – and Brahms’s emotional reaction to the events above looms large in the work’s character. Schumann’s “Neue Bahnen” article described how Brahms had played him “sonatas, or rather veiled symphonies” at their first meeting. Schumann’s insight was remarkable. He sensed the symphonic potential of Brahms’s imagination (and of course he was proved right by Brahms’s later works), and soon started to encourage Brahms to write a symphony – the most prestigious of all musical genres at the time – in the great tradition of Beethoven. Brahms sketched the musical material for the first movement of the First Piano Concerto, in fact, as a large-scale Symphony in D Minor inspired by the memory of Schumann. In 1854-5, Brahms had never written for orchestra, however, and despite advice from friends and colleagues, he struggled with both the material and the medium. Malcolm MacDonald notes that Brahms’s main problem was that the “explosiveness of the material demanded treatment not only on the largest scale but in the most dramatic personal manner, and with an instrumental technique to match.”
Brahms wrote to Clara in February 1855 that he had dreamt that he was playing a piano concerto based on his symphony, and this suddenly seemed to give him a way of progressing with this material. He rewrote the symphony’s first movement and completed it by April 1856, abandoned the original slow movement (which he revised and used in his later German Requiem Op.45), and wrote a new slow movement and finale, completing the work by 1858. In doing so he avoided the problem of writing a symphony when he was not yet ready for it (Brahms’s First Symphony was completed in 1876, 20 years later than his initial attempt), and instead created a piano concerto of truly “symphonic” length and stature, and of unprecedented emotional intensity. The work was complete by 1858, though Brahms continued to revise it until its premiere in Hanover in 1859.
According to Brahms’s friend, the violinist Joseph Joachim, the extraordinary opening of the work reflects Brahms’s state of mind on hearing that Schumann had thrown himself into the Rhine. We don’t hear the piano for about four minutes – I find this an oddly disconcerting feeling (it is rare to have to wait that long to start playing), but the breadth of Brahms’s symphonic thought demands it – and when we do hear the soloist for the first time it is with a quiet and meditative theme in a manner which Tovey thought “worthy of Bach’s ariosos in the St Matthew Passion”. The beautifully sensitive second group of themes, introduced by the solo piano, is a favourite page of mine, and I think it wonderful that, Schubert-like, Brahms repeats it almost note for note when the themes return in the recapitulation. Robert Gethner’s quirky poem “The Universal Language” captures something of the essence of this movement:
Brahms piano concerto, of tenderness
and troubled majesty…”
The second movement is a deeply moving Adagio, with orchestral writing that owes much to Brahms’s study of the scores of religious Renaissance music that he first set eyes on in Schumann’s library, especially the music of Schütz. When sketching the first theme Brahms wrote the words “Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini” (Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord) above the text; this is generally thought to be an allusion to Schumann himself, who Brahms referred to as “Mynheer Domini”. Indeed, several veiled allusions in the movement to works by Schumann suggest that the whole movement can be heard as a homage to the older composer. Brahms’s inspiration and sources of influence were rarely simple, however. Brahms himself described the movement as a “tender portrait” of Clara, and George Bozarth has highlighted an allusion in this movement to the cadenza which Brahms and Clara wrote jointly for Mozart’s D Minor Piano Concerto K.466. Perhaps the ambiguity is unavoidable; it reflects the extent to which both Robert and Clara were central to Brahm’s life at this time.
The third movement is an exhilarating Rondo finale which, as both Donald Tovey and Charles Rosen have pointed out, follows the structure and even the musical gestures of the Finale of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto very closely. Brahms’s movement is also full of references – some obvious, some much less so – to earlier themes in his concerto. For example, the muscular main Rondo theme is a transformation of the beautiful second theme in the first movement. In this way we sense unity, even in the diversity of so much wonderful musical material in this movement.
Early performances of this highly original work left audiences perplexed. The concerto lasts around 50 minutes, and is hugely difficult for the soloist, but has none of the pleasant but rather empty virtuosity that had come to be associated with the genre of the piano concerto after Beethoven’s death. Instead, the orchestra plays just as important a role as the soloist, and we sense that every note is part of an important musical narrative; there is no room for artifice. All of which can makes this piece seem, to borrow a phrase by Richard Taruskin, deeply “un-easy listening music”. I feel that, however, the work leads us through a psychological journey that is so powerful, so imaginative, so heartfelt, and somehow so pure, that it moves me like no other concerto in the repertory.