Have you ever been so bowled over by the beauty of a piece of music that you’re not even sure where to start? Us too! In this new series, we’ll be underscoring a single element of a beloved piece that you can use as a port of entry. This week? The beautiful oboe solo that opens the Adagio of Brahms’s Violin Concerto. Or, how a musical moment Brahms feared “feeble” managed to arouse jealousy in violinists everywhere…
In honor of Brahms’s birthday this week, we’re dedicating our Classical Sunday selection to the composer dubbed “destined to come.” Brahms wasn’t a violinist, but he did certainly spend a lot of time around the instrument. Early on in his career, he worked as an accompanist for the violinist Eduard Reményi and it was this connection that led him to meet one of his closest friends: veritable violin star Joseph Joachim.
Brahms wrote the concerto for Joachim and sollicited the violinist’s advice as he worked. Composed in a burst of productivity after the long-awaited completion of his first symphony (which took 20 years!), the violin concerto took less than half a year to complete yet seemed to be the source of considerable anguish for Brahms. At one point, he wrote to Joachim, “The two middle movements have fallen through. Naturally they were the best ones. However, I have substituted a feeble adagio.”
Few would describe the Adagio as feeble; in fact, many might assert that it’s the highlight of the piece. The Adagio opens with an impeccably-spun melody that Brahms develops throughout the movement. Let’s listen:
Gorgeous, right? Unfortunately, it seems Brahms’s decision to give it to the oboe rankled a few feathers.
For example, Joseph Hellmesberger, Sr., a prominent violinist on the Viennese scene, who described the work as “a concerto not for, but against the violin.”
Legendary Spanish virtuoso Pablo de Sarasate was even harsher. He categorically refused to perform the concerto, responding to Brahms’s request,
“Do you think me so devoid of taste that I would stand there in front of the orchestra, violin in hand, but like a listener, while the oboe plays the only melody in the entire work?”
It’s easy to understand their frustration: the solo violin doesn’t have a straightforward statement of what is arguably the most catchy melody in the piece. But the solo violin does plenty in this movement. After the initial statement of the melody, the violin takes it up, turning it into a fanciful elaboration. Then, in the Adagio‘s final moments, Brahms crafts a heartfelt duet with the violin playing a rhapsodic counterpart to the oboe’s reprise of the main melody.
Astute readers will note that this question of the role of the soloist and the relationship the solo part has with the orchestra has come up before—and it likely will again. The importance Brahms afforded to musical partnership and interweaving lines makes his music particularly fertile ground for this kind of philosophical debate.
So the next time you listen to Brahms’s violin concerto, zero in on that “feeble adagio” and in particular, on that beautiful melody. Just don’t refer to it as a “Concerto for Violin and Oboe”—at least not in earshot of any string players.
April 7th, 2019, noon (EDT)
2002. Gil Shaham brings out the subtleties of Brahms’s only violin concerto alongside Claudio Abbado and the Berliner Philharmoniker (featuring oboist Albrecht Mayer 😉).
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