Piano Concerto No. 1 (Brahms)

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The Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15, is a work for piano and orchestra completed by Johannes Brahms in 1858. The composer gave the work's public debut in Hanover, Germany, the following year.[1]


performed February 2011

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This concerto is written in the traditional three movements and is approximately 40 to 50 minutes long.

  1. Maestoso (D minor)
    The first movement is in sonata form, divided into five sections: orchestral introduction, exposition, development, recapitulation, and coda. This movement is large, lasting between 20 to 25 minutes. This strict adherence to forms used in the Classical Period earned Brahms a reputation for being musically "conservative." The theme heavily makes use of arpeggiated chords and trills. Within the orchestral introduction other themes are introduced, and the thematic material is further developed by both orchestra and soloist.
  2. Adagio (D major)
    This movement is in a ternary form, with the theme being introduced by bassoon.
  3. Rondo: Allegro non troppo (D minor → D major)
    The structure of the Rondo finale is similar to that of the rondo of Beethoven's third piano concerto. There are three themes present in this rondo; the second theme may be considered a strong variation of the first. The third theme is introduced in the episode but is never explicitly developed by the soloist, instead the soloist is "integrated into the orchestral effect." A cadenza follows the bulk of the rondo, with an extensive coda that develops the first and third themes appearing afterward. The coda is in the parallel major, D major.


Roles of Joachim and Clara Schumann[edit]

Brahms was himself a professional-level pianist who had first highly impressed the leading violinist Joseph Joachim, who gave him a letter of introduction to Schumann. Brahms and Joachim became close friends for life. In 1853 Brahms had profoundly impressed Schumann and his wife Clara, a turning point in Brahms's career, by playing for them some of his own solo piano pieces. Clara was a leading concert pianist and a composer. She and Brahms began a lifelong friendship, which became more important when Robert was committed to an asylum in 1854 and died in 1856. Clara, 14 years older than Brahms, wrote of him in her diary in 1854 "I love him like a son."[2] Brahms's love of her was respectful, more complex and conflicted, but he much valued her opinions and advice.


During the course of composition, the work passed through different forms. In 1854 it began as a sonata for two pianos. By July 27 of that year it was being transformed into a four-movement symphony.[3] Brahms sought advice from his close friend Julius Otto Grimm. "Brahms was in the habit of showing his orchestrations to Grimm, who, with his conservatory training, was better schooled in orchestration."[3] After incorporating some of Grimm's suggestions Brahms then sent the orchestrated first movement to Joachim. Evidently Joachim liked it. Brahms wrote to him 12 September 1854 "As usual, you've viewed my symphony movement through rose-coloured spectacles -- I definitely want to change and improve it; there's still a great deal lacking in the composition, and I don't even understand as much of the orchestration as appears in the movement, since the best of it I owe to Grimm."[4] In January 1855 Brahms wrote to Robert Schumann that after orchestrating the first movement he had "composed the second and third."[5] He ultimately decided that he had not sufficiently mastered the nuances of orchestral colour to sustain a symphony, and instead made the work a concerto for piano, his favored instrument, in 1855-56, still consulting friends about the orchestration. Avins writes that "In all the many volumes of correspondence to and from Brahms, nothing quite approaches the letters he and Joachim exchanged over his First Piano Concerto (there are more than twenty of them) ... Joachim's answers, lengthy, detailed, thoughtful, and skilled, are extraordinary testimonials to his own talent, and to the awe and admiration he felt for his friend."[6] Brahms only retained the original material from the work's first movement; the remaining movements were discarded and two new ones were composed, a second movement adagio, which Gál called "calm and dreamlike," and a third movement rondo, in which Gál heard "healthy, exuberant creativity".[7] The result was a work in the more usual three-movement concerto structure. Brahms corresponded with Joachim about the rondo in winter-spring 1856-1857.[8] Brahms made an arrangement for piano four hands[9] (not close to the earlier attempt at a Sonata).

On 1 October 1856 Clara wrote in her diary that Brahms had "composed an excellent first movement" for a piano concerto[10] (he had evidently sent her a score). She further wrote "I am delighted with its greatness of conception and the tenderness of its melodies," Then on 18 October, "Johannes has finished his concerto - we have played it several times on two pianos."[11] Clara heard a rehearsal of the concerto in Hanover in March 1858, nine months before the premiere there, and wrote to a friend that it "went very well ... Almost all of it sounds beautiful, some parts far more beautiful even than Johannes himself imagined or expected."[12]

Early Performances[edit]

The concerto was first performed on January 22, 1859, in Hanover, Germany, when Brahms was just 25 years old. The second performance, 5 days later, was in Leipzig. The Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra was a leading one in Germany. It had premiered Beethoven's 5th and last ("Emperor") piano concerto in 1811. Felix Mendelssohn conducted the Gewandhaus from 1835 until his death in 1847. During his tenure the orchestra premiered Brahms's Violin Concerto with the composer conducting and Schubert's 9th "Great" Symphony, after Schubert's death; Robert Schumann had unearthed a manuscript in Vienna and given a copy to Mendelssohn. The orchestra also premiered Mendelssohn's own "Scottish" Symphony and outstanding violin concerto. It seems that after Mendelssohn's passing, "standards in Leipzig declined."[13] Still, Leipzig remained a highly prestigious venue. Brahms, who served as piano soloist, had two rehearsals in Leipzig with the orchestra and wrote to Clara that the performance "went very well" but not in the audience's opinion, who "regularly hissed"; at the end, "not 3 people troubled to clap."[14] Brahms wrote to Joachim "I am only experimenting and feeling my way,"[1] adding sadly, "all the same, the hissing was rather too much."[1]

Brahms revised the concerto (not as drastically as before) and in August 1859 sent the revised manuscript to Clara, who replied that she had "hours of joy" from it.[15] In September she wrote that the adagio is "exquisite, beautiful." She said the first movement "gave me great pleasure" although she did not like "some things in it" she had criticized before, but Brahms had not changed them. It seems that the revised concerto was first publicly performed 3 December 1861, with the Hamburg (Brahms's home city) Philharmonic. Brahms conducted and Clara was solo pianist. She wrote in her diary "I was certainly the happiest person in the whole room ... the joy of the work so overcame me", but "the public understood nothing and felt nothing, otherwise it must have shown proper respect."[16] By then the concerto had been performed in concert three times and not yet had a success. Brahms and Clara both put it aside for some years,

Biographical points[edit]

Brahms' biographers often note that the first sketches for the dramatic opening movement followed quickly on the heels of the 1854 suicide attempt of the composer's dear friend and mentor, Robert Schumann, an event which caused great anguish for Brahms. He finally completed the concerto two years after Schumann's death in 1856, The degree to which Brahms' personal experience is embedded in the concerto is hard to gauge since several other factors also influenced the musical expression of the piece. The epic mood links the work explicitly to the tradition of the Beethoven symphony that Brahms sought to emulate. The finale of the concerto, for example, is clearly modeled on the last movement of Beethoven's third piano concerto, while the concerto's key of D minor is the same as both Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and Mozart's dramatic Piano Concerto No. 20.

Symphonic and chamber techniques[edit]

The work reflects Brahms' effort to combine the piano with the orchestra as equal partners in a symphonic-scale structure, in emulation of the classical concertos of Mozart and Beethoven. It thus differs from earlier Romantic concertos, where the orchestra effectively accompanied the pianist. Even for the young Brahms, the concerto-as-showpiece had little appeal. Instead, he enlisted both orchestra and soloist in the service of the musical ideas; technically difficult passages in the concerto are never gratuitous, but extend and develop the thematic material. Such an approach is thoroughly in keeping with Brahms' artistic temperament, but also reflects the concerto's symphonic origins and ambitions. His effort drew on both chamber music techniques and the pre-classical Baroque concerto grosso, an approach that later was fully realized in Brahms' Second Piano Concerto. This first concerto also demonstrates Brahms' particular interest in scoring for the timpani and the horn, both of whose parts are difficult and prominent.

Although a work of Brahms' youth, this concerto is a mature work that points forward to his later concertos and his First Symphony. Most notable are its scale and grandeur, as well as the thrilling technical difficulties it presents. As time passed, the work grew in popularity until it was recognized as a masterpiece.[citation needed]Alfred Brendel considers it among the "purest Brahms", stating that to it "...particularly the D-Minor Concerto, goes my love."[17]

Selected discography[edit]

Use in film[edit]

The first movement of the concerto was used to reinforce particularly dramatic moments in the British film The L-Shaped Room (1963), in a recording by Peter Katin.


  1. ^ a b c Ewen, David. Music for the Millions. p. 108. ISBN 1-4067-3926-X. Retrieved 18 December 2009. 
  2. ^ Litzmann, p. 94
  3. ^ a b Brahms and Avins, p. 50, note 44
  4. ^ Brahms and Avins, p. 61
  5. ^ Brahms and Avins, p. 85
  6. ^ Brahms and Avins, pp. 146-147
  7. ^ Gál, pp. 114-117
  8. ^ Brahms and Avins, pp. 148-150
  9. ^ Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Major; The Composer's Original Arrangement for Piano Four Hands, by Brahms, reprint of 1864 edition. Publishers liked piano four hands arrangements, which could be sold to customers owning only one piano; Brahms's Hungarian Dances for piano four hands were highly profitable for him and the publisher, Simrock.
  10. ^ Litzmann, p. 146
  11. ^ Litzmann, p. 147. Brahms had written a two-piano arrangement. In 1853 Robert Schumann had bought a grand piano for Clara (Litzmann, p. 39) so that the household had two.
  12. ^ Litzmann, p. 159
  13. ^ Campbell, Margaret (1981), The Great Violinists, Doubleday, Garden City, NY, p. 76
  14. ^ Litzmann, p. 170.
  15. ^ Litzmann, pp. 172-173.
  16. ^ Litzmann, pp. 200-201
  17. ^ The New York Review of Books, July 11, 2013
  18. ^ Hunt J. A Gallic Trio - Charles Munch, Paul Paray, Pierre Monteux. John Hunt, 2003, 2009, p165
  19. ^ Conrad Wilson: Notes on Brahms: 20 Crucial Works (Edinboro, Saint Andrew Press: 2005) p. 16


  • Brahms, Johannes; Avins, Styra (1997). Johannes Brahms: Life and Letters at Google Books. selected and annotated by Styra Avins, transl. by Josef Eisinger and S. Avins, Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press. I0-19-924773-0.
  • Gál, Hans (1971), Johannes Brahms: His Work and Personality, translated by Joseph Stein, Knopf, New York.
  • Litzmann, Berthold (1913), Clara Schumann: An Artist's Life based on material found in Diaries and Letters, Translated and abridged from the fourth German edition by Grace E. Hadow, MacMillan, London, and Breitkopf and Härtel, Leipzig, 1913, vol. 2. (Vol. 1 is about her life up to 1850, before meeting Brahms in 1853.)

External links[edit]