13 Oct 2012

Curtain Raiser: Brahms, Joseph Joachim and the Paradox of the Concerto

From the collecton Curtain Raiser

Brahms’s Violin Concerto represents a high point in the relationship between composer and violinist. 

Joseph Joachim

Joseph Joachim Photo: Joseph Joachim drawing: Adolph Menzel [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Straying away from the extreme virtuosic styles of Paganini, Brahms created a contradiction centering on the position of the soloist and the relationship between composition and performance.  Symphonies after Beethoven were typically treated as monumental, ‘serious’ works in which the composer displayed his mastery of all the tools of his craft. In concertos, it was the craft of the solo performer that was on show.   A concerto could not easily be seen as monumental in quite the same way as a symphony.

In Germany, the virtuosic Paganini style was frowned upon.  Robert Schumann was awaiting the genius who would, as he put it: ‘show us a brilliant new way of combining orchestra and piano, so that the autocrat at the keyboard may reveal the richness of his instrument and of his art, while the orchestra, more than a mere onlooker, with its many expressive capabilities adds to the artistic whole.’

Brahms had new approaches to the concerto, creating interactions with the symphony and other instruments, rather than dominating. He formed a close bond with violinist Joseph Joachim, who would premiere his first violin concerto.  

While composing, Brahms was imagining himself as the performer so he could bring together soloist and orchestra.  There are many stylistic similarities between Brahms’ violin concerto and second symphony which helped attained the seriousness of the symphony Schumann was looking for.  Though he continued to employ all the virtuosity of the soloist, Brahms integrated this in with his own symphonic idiom, shaping a new aesthetic for his work.

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