Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Concerto Guide: Brahms, Violin Concerto in D major, op. 77

Last week we looked at the Violin Concerto by Tchaikovsky which was composed in 1878 (which I neglected to mention) and is in the key of D major. This week I am going to take up the Violin Concerto of Brahms which was also composed in 1878 (big year for violin concertos!) and is also in D major. The great Violin Concerto by Beethoven is another in D major. Why is D major such a popular key for violin concertos? The answer has to do with the tuning: the strings of the violin are tuned G D A E:

which means that you have easily available not only the tonic, D, but also the subdominant, G, and dominant, A. As a bonus, the E string is the dominant of the dominant. This is of great advantage in writing virtuoso figuration and polyphony. Great advantage to the player, that is! While you can play in any key on violin, some keys offer more possibilities with less effort. Guitar concertos tend to be written in keys like D, A and E major for the same reasons.

Brahms' model for this piece was the Beethoven Violin Concerto and it vies with it for length and seriousness. Brahms did not find an opening as brilliantly original as Beethoven's (which I talked about here), but he followed the Beethoven model (and the 18th century model in general) in giving the orchestra a substantial opening in which a number of themes appear before the entrance of the soloist. But he departs from the 18th century model as far as harmony goes. Schubert was one of the first to widen the scope of harmony so that both the major and minor modes were virtually interchangeable and this is Brahms' practice here. The opening for the orchestra simply outlines tonic harmony in D major (with the rich resonance of violas and cellos doubled by bassoons):

A nice eight-measure phrase ending with a half-cadence on V. This is followed by a phrase in C major and then this theme in the violins:

This is a strong statement in D minor, but is followed by a continuation returning to D major. This is telling the listener that the key of D is going to include both the major and minor versions. Before the solo violin enters there is another theme that even more strongly presents D minor by means of its viiº7:

Bear in mind the key signature is two sharps. Then, at measure 90, we finally have the solo violin with this cadenza-like phrase:

Click to enlarge
The violin continues with a lot of (very lovely) figuration that simply repeats the kinds of harmonies we have already heard in the orchestra (a lot of D minor) before finally presenting a theme which turns out to be that opening we first heard in low register, now given in a very high register:

This is followed by more varied figuration and then the solo violin takes up a theme that we heard in the orchestra just before the solo entry. This provides an energetic, rhythmic contrast and makes use of that open E first string to add a pedal over the harmonies. The key is A minor:

(Mind you, in the last measure he is tonicizing the dominant E.) The next important theme we hear is given to the solo violin and seems like a new one. This is a device used by Mozart: as the problem in concertos is that you have two expositions, one for the orchestra and one for the soloist, how do you make this interesting? What Mozart often did was give some entirely new theme(s) to the soloist.

This is the most distinct theme we have heard so far, the only one we are likely to go away humming and he has been saving it  until now, measure 206! Though this theme is new, it also sounds awfully familiar (the mark of a great theme) and the reason is that Brahms has been preparing for it since the beginning. It is solidly in D major and has been set up in subtle ways. The outlining of the triads, plus the hemiola (turning two measures of 3/4 into one measure of 3/2), plus the arpeggio eighth-notes have all been heard before. This is a trick that Sibelius was very fond of. Each of his symphonies tends to have One Big Theme that he prepares you for from the beginning. For example the big theme of the last movement of the Symphony No. 5 we hear in a nascent form at the end of the first movement.

The development is shared pretty equally between the orchestra and the soloist, though she gets to introduce one new theme that is a variation on previous material:

The recapitulation starts at measure 381 and is as you would expect. Brahms did not write a cadenza for this concerto. Most soloists seem to play the one by Joachim, who consulted with Brahms on the violin writing and gave the premiere. He opened the concert with the Beethoven Violin Concerto!!

I won't say anything about the other movements as I think this is enough analysis for today. Let's listen to my favorite violinist Hilary Hahn, with Paavo Järvi conducting the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra:


Anonymous said...

recently in your comments you mentioned steve reich as your modern musical philosopher pick.i was startled initially about his quote about romantic period bing irrelevant for him while acknowledging the greatness of few composers like beethoven/schubert etc.since you're looking for blogging ideas constantly, here's a request.please write a series of posts on minimalism,its foundations,important composers/compositions as you deem fit.this seems to be a very divisive topic;while detractors claim its just arpeggio overdone,some pieces by part/adams/reich are astonishingly beautiful.i try to learn something about the philosophical aspects of new music,hopefully there's a fruitful discussion here.

Bryan Townsend said...

Hi Jack and welcome to the Music Salon.

I do think Steve Reich is a very important composer and he did do a degree in philosophy, but I don't recall saying anything about him as a modern musical philosopher! But never mind, I think you have a great idea for a post. Coincidentally I was just reading a piece about Steve Reich...

Rickard Dahl said...

It's an excellent concerto. Like often seems to be the case: I prefer the later movements. The slow movement in this case has a lovely quality to it, especially the oboe solo opening. The last movement is very lively. Anyways, the oboe solo opening of the second movement got me thinking about why there aren't more concertos for wind instruments. Well, piano concertos have obviously been popular as a lot of prominent composers were great piano (or more generally keyboard) players. I suppose the reason for the popularity of violin concertos is that the string orchestra often forms the basis of classical orchestral works (with most other instruments being more optional). I mean for instance a work might not include all the basic wind instruments but it almost always includes a full string orchestra (well maybe with the exception of double bass sometimes). The violin can be described as the most prominent member of the most basic building block in most orchestral works as it often has more melodic/thematic/important parts. Obviously brass instruments took longer to develop so that is a natural reason why they are fewer concertos with them I think. But woodwinds on the other hand didn't have the same problems as brass and it's a somewhat surprising that there aren't more woodwind concertos. The woodwinds after all have more diverse timbres than the string instruments for instance. Seems like the choice of concerto instrument was more diverse during the baroque but then again baroque composers composed more concertos and shorter ones too. Just rambling, I'm sure there's a good explanation.

By the way, have you heard any of Henry Cowell's concertos? I don't know how many concertos he composed (as I couldn't find a list) but there are a few at Youtube. The Piano Concerto is pretty much of the dissonant early modernist American variant with polytonality, clusters etc: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GvlJTfCyNe8 Concerto Piccolo (a misleading name for a piano concerto) is far more consonant (well there are some clusters but these are in a more consonant setting) and it sounds very nice actually: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1RX66XxBL5M Finally I also found the Harmonica Concerto, it is lovely (the sound quality in this case is terrible though): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0OvREg9uUOA

Rickard Dahl said...

The clip of the Harmonica Concerto is incomplete though. The duration should be approx. 18 mins according to SheetMusicPlus http://www.sheetmusicplus.com/title/concerto-for-harmonica-sheet-music/19114742.

Bryan Townsend said...

Mozart wrote quite a few concertos for wind instruments including ones for flute, oboe and bassoon. And Vivaldi wrote quite a few for winds as well. But in general, yes, composers have preferred to write for piano, violin and, since the late 19th century, cello. I think the reason is that these instruments offer enormous expressive power. I would question the claim that woodwinds have more diverse timbres than strings.

When I get to the 20th century, I will have to have a listen to those Cowell concertos!