This Week in Music History: The premiere of Brahms’s First Piano Concerto (1859)

Classical music has such a long, storied history, that it can be difficult to know where to start. Each week, we’ll be exploring an important event that left its mark.

Full of Christmas cheer, Brahms wrote to Clara Schumann in December 1857:

I have been thinking about my Concerto lately. You cannot imagine the trouble it has given me. It is one botch from start to finish and bears the hallmark of amateurishness. I am trying to get rid of this and finish with the work for good.

He was nowhere near done: his First Piano Concerto was still some 13 months away from its premiere, which took place in Hanover in January 1859.

By then, this “botch” of a concerto had been occupying Brahms’s thoughts for almost five years: almost as long, in fact, as he had been the protégé of Robert Schumann. The 20-year-old Brahms had arrived at the Schumanns’ house in 1853 and startled them with his talent. So much so, in fact, that in October that year, Robert Schumann published an article that praised Brahms in the most remarkable terms:

[H]e has come; a young man over whose cradle Graces and Heroes have stood watch… Even outwardly he bore the marks announcing to us: “This is a chosen one.”… Should he direct his magic wand where the powers of the masses in chorus and orchestra may lend him their strength, we may look forward to even more wondrous glimpses of the secret world of spirits. May the highest genius strengthen him to this end.

No pressure, then… As you might expect, these words weighed heavily on the young, humble composer’s head, and he did not find the transition to larger, symphonic-scale works as easy as Schumann evidently hoped.

Which isn’t to say that he wasn’t rather good at it. It may have taken him a while, but his monumental First Piano Concerto is in fact the outcome of his first known attempt at writing an orchestral piece, according to Brahms scholar Michael Musgrave. It started life in 1854 as a sonata for two pianos—a logical next step, following on from his early piano sonatas—but later that year he began to orchestrate it. A symphony, it seems, was in the works.

He changed his mind in 1855: it was to be a concerto in three movements, with a scherzo as the second. Then that second movement became an adagio, a “tender portrait” of Clara Schumann (above). He kept changing his mind, and demanding criticism from his friends—the violinist Joseph Joachim most of all. “I am sending you the rondo once more,” Brahms wrote to him in April 1857. “And just like the last time, I beg for some really severe criticism.”

After its Hanover premiere on January 22, 1859—and after its second performance in Leipzig, on January 27—Brahms received severe criticism galore. The Piano Concerto met with a chilly reception, and was ripped to pieces in the press. He wouldn’t write a symphony or concerto again for over a decade. Thankfully, his next such work—the First Symphony of 1876—went down far better.

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