Johannes Brahms was 20 years old when, with a letter of recommendation from the violinist Joseph Joachim, he fearfully introduced himself to Robert Schumann in Düsseldorf. At that time – the year was 1853 – he had a reputation of an authoritative composer, conductor and music critic. Schumann asked the visitor to play some of his works for him. Delighted, he immediately called his wife Clara (a famous concert pianist) to hear the talented young man. Brahms stays for a month in their home. A time filled with music and exciting conversations about art. Moreover, Schumann made the unknown composer a sensation with his latest “swan” article “New Ways” in the magazine “Neue Zeitschrift fur Musik”, which wrote: “I knew and hoped that He would come who was destined to become the perfect expresser of the times. The One whose mastery would not emerge with a timid sprout from the earth, but would suddenly blossom with splendid colors. And he came! That bright youth over whose cradle graces and heroes watched.” Brahms fell in love with Clara, the beautiful, refined woman and wonderful musician, 14 years his senior. During the family’s next difficult time, when Robert Schumann was stricken with mental illness and died, he was her support. In their letters, she shared her innermost feelings…
Such was the atmosphere in which the Piano Concerto No 1 in D minor, Op. 15 was born. Schumann encouraged the young artist to go beyond the piano and chamber music he had been writing. He called his first piano sonatas “hidden symphonies”. Brahms was not so confident of his potential as a symphonist. The concerto, which he completed in 1858, was written after a long process of creative metamorphosis. The original conception was for a sonata for two pianos, begun in 1854. The idea transformed into a four-movement symphony in D minor. And over the next three years (1855-1858) Johannes created the final form, a three-movement piano concerto. From the sketches of the symphony he used the first movement, the second (a kind of sarabande) he later included in the German Requiem.
The shadow of Beethoven, who was an idol for the composer (and especially his Ninth Symphony), undoubtedly spread impulses over the concerto’s conception of an equal partnership between solo piano and orchestra, over the work’s gigantic dimensions and even its tonality – D minor. The composer took the advice of friends Joseph Joachim and Julius Grimm on some details of the orchestration. Nine months before the premiere, in March 1858, he and Joachim as conductor made a rehearsal in Hanover, which Clara also attended. “It went very well… Almost everything sounds beautiful, some parts even more beautiful than Johannes imagined and expected,” she noted. The first public performance of the concerto – on January 22nd, 1859, conducted by Joseph Joachim with the Hanover Court Orchestra, Brahms playing the solo part – went well, though without much success. The next performance, in Leipzig on January 27th with the Gewandhaus Orchestra conducted by Julius Ritz, the composer called “a brilliant and decisive failure”. In a letter to Joachim he also wrote: “The first and second movements were heard without any emotion. At the end three people slowly began to applaud, but the shuffling that came from all sides cut short this kind of demonstration… I am still only experimenting and finding my way, this spiteful hissing was too much.” It was not until the third performance, again conducted by Joachim, that the concerto was given its due.
The reaction of the critics was unsurprising, one of them condemning the work for ‘the most piercing dissonances and the most unpleasant sounds he had ever heard’ and its ‘wasteful length’. To the audience of the time, expecting pleasant music with bravura solo passages and unobtrusive accompaniment. Instead, Brahms wrote a concerto of symphonic proportions whose power and vitality would place it among the greatest achievements of keyboard music in the Romantic era. The cyclic form is predominant in the first movement. After the orchestral exposition of the explosive first theme, the soloist enters, not with heroic pathos, but with an absorbed poetic theme. Intense symphonic development marks the transformations of the thematic material, deployed in a varied and active manner by the soloist. In the sketch of the second movement Brahms writes: ‘Benedictus qui venit in nomine Dominus’ (‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’). The uplifting opening chorale, however, is not an outburst of some religious ecstasy, but a reverential bow to mentor Robert Schumann, whom Brahms often addressed with the playful ‘Meinherr Domine’. After the dramatic first movement, the uplifting Adagio is like music from another world. The longing for the beloved Clara is no doubt woven into it. Shortly after Schumann’s death, the composer writes to her: ‘I am painting a tender portrait of you which will become the Adagio’… With the rhapsodic swirl of the dance in the finale, Brahms returns to the real world. The energetic exuberance of virtuosic keyboard flights culminates in a glittering apotheosis.