Johannes Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15

Program note written for the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. Not to be reprinted without permission.

If you think Beethoven looms large over classical music today, imagine being a young composer in 1853—just 26 years after his death—and being declared his second coming. Robert Schumann, in fact, used a mythological rather than Biblical metaphor when he wrote that a new artist would “spring like Minerva, fully armed, from the head of Jupiter” (Jupiter being Beethoven). Then he took a left turn into the prosaic: “His name is Johannes Brahms, and he comes from Hamburg.”

This expectation burdened Brahms for two decades until he completed his tumultuous First Symphony in 1876, followed by the carefree Second a year later. But his very first orchestra piece was the Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, written between 1854–59. The first bars plainly echo the opening jolts Beethoven often employed—but soon a different voice emerges, with all the slippery rhythms, hunting-horn calls, lilting waltzes, and rising and falling sequences that became Brahmsian signatures. You can sense a bit of tension between the kind of music Brahms thought he was supposed to write and the music he really wanted to write—something he resolved in his later works. But Schumann was basically right: here he is, Johannes Brahms, fully formed. The rest was a matter of shedding unneeded elements, not of finding his identity.

A Long Development

None of that means that the First Piano Concerto came out fluently. It actually began as a sonata for two pianos, then became a symphony (Brahms often began composing for one ensemble before changing to another), and altogether went through a six-year genesis. During that time, Robert Schumann attempted suicide and was committed to an asylum where he died in 1856. Brahms’s ambiguous relationship with his widow, the pianist Clara Schumann, grew more complicated, and he mysteriously broke off his engagement to the soprano Agathe von Siebold.

Brahms’s work on the concerto is very well documented in letters with his friend Joseph Joachim, the violinist and conductor, who replied with revisions and advice. “Here comes the Rondo for the 2nd time,” Brahms wrote while working on the last movement in April 1857. “I’m asking for the same as last time, your very exacting appraisal.” He went on with a flurry of questions: “wouldn’t it be better for the winds to take over the melody?” “Wouldn’t it also be better to have eighth-note motion?” “I suppose we had better do away with the piccolo, it has only 8 notes in the first movement after all?” (Sure enough, there is no piccolo in the final piece.) The following year, Joachim practically had to tear the manuscript from Brahms’s hands. “I beg you, for God’s sake, let the copyist get at your Concerto at last: when shall I finally hear it?”

Indeed, Brahms wrote the piece without a commission or any promise of a premiere. With the support of Joachim and Clara Schumann, he set out to find an orchestra—and in those days, even famous ensembles would sometimes agree to read a new piece on very little notice. “Do you have any prospects for trying it out in Hamburg?” Joachim asked. “If not, let’s stay with my suggestion of the Hanover Orchestra…I am now on tolerable terms with the musicians…and the gentlemen will do us the favor of giving it a proper playing in a rehearsal.” The reading went ahead on March 30, 1858, with Brahms at the keyboard, Joachim on the podium, and Clara in attendance. She wrote:

The rehearsal came off splendidly today; although there was time only to play through the concerto once, it went almost without a stumble, and even ignited some of the musicians…Almost everything sounds so beautiful, much of it even more beautiful than Johannes himself thought or hoped for. The whole thing is wondrous, so rich, deeply felt, and such unity withal. Johannes was blissful, and for pure joy played the last movement prestissimo.

The public premiere took place with the same orchestra the following year, on January 22, but was received indifferently. Then five days later Brahms repeated it in Leipzig with the Gewandhaus Orchestra. “My concerto here has been a brilliant and decisive—flop,” he reported. “I am plainly experimenting and still groping. But the hissing was surely too much?”

But when he performed it at home in Hamburg that March, the third time was the charm. “Thursday evening came off well and fine…the concert was enormously well attended. Hundreds of people were unable to get tickets,” he wrote. Joachim concurred: “Johannes’s concerto went really well, the musicians, as well as audiences were decidedly for it.”

The Music

Set in three sprawling movements, this is a symphony-sized concerto with subtle thematic links especially between the first two movements. On a draft of the second movement, Brahms scribbled: “Benedictus qui venit in nominee Domini” (Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord), and he separately described it as a “tender portrait” of Clara. The finale is a Rondo—a favorite form of Beethoven’s in which a recurring theme contrasts with varied episodes.

Hélène Grimaud offered her take when she recorded the concerto live for Deutsche Grammophon in 2012:

The whole piece is driven by Brahms’s most intimate thoughts and emotions: the first movement is a portrait of the tormented life of his friend and champion, Robert Schumann; the second, dedicated to Brahms’s impossible love, Clara Schumann, is like a prayer; the third movement is full of rhythm and vigor—a kind of resurrection. To perform this concerto is to be directly absorbed into the drama of the young Brahms’s life.

Benjamin Pesetsky is a composer and writer. He serves on the staff of the San Francisco Symphony and also contributes program notes for the Philadelphia Orchestra and Melbourne Symphony.