Summer and fall of 1878 at Pärtschach on Lake Worther in Carinthia, with revisions and alterations continuing after the premiere until June 1879
January 1, 1879 in Leipzig by the Gewandhaus Orchestra, conducted by Brahms, with violinist Joseph Joachim
Brahms wrote his first and only violin concerto for his good friend Joseph Joachim, a highly regarded violinist that the composer had known for over twenty years. This friendship allowed for a unique collaboration on the project, and Brahms frequently wrote to Joachim for his opinions and suggestions on how to improve the solo violin part and orchestration. There was an amount of trust between the two friends that allowed for honest criticism and exchange of ideas, and this proved to be crucial during the lengthy compositional process. When Brahms initially sent the first of the planned four movements to Joachim on August 22, 1878, he included a letter asking for whatever input the violinist could provide:
After having written it out I really don’t know what you will make of the solo part alone. It was my intention, of course, that you should correct it, not sparing the quality of the composition and that if you thought it not worth scoring, that you should say so. I shall be satisfied if you will mark those parts which are difficult, awkward or impossible to play.1
Brahms often lamented to Joachim that the composition was of poor quality, but his longtime friend always responded reassuringly. At one point, Brahms even described the middle movements as “failures,” and in November informed Joachim that he had scrapped the middle Scherzo and Adagio altogether, replacing them instead with a single, “poor” Adagio.2 Although Joachim wanted to meet as early as October to rehearse the piece, Brahms’s reworking of the middle movements pushed the premiere back to the first of January. Joachim continued to insist, “There is a lot of really good violin music in it.”3
The difficult concerto garnered an unenthusiastic response at its premiere; Joachim’s playing came across as ill-prepared, and Brahms’s conducting conveyed a nervous tension.4 In fact, Brahms was so unhappy with the concert that he withdrew from conducting the Viennese premiere two weeks later. The conductor of that concert, Joseph Hellmesberger, famously remarked that the work was not a concerto for the violin, but rather a concerto “against” the violin.5 Brahms, however, was quite pleased with the performance:
Joachim played my piece more beautifully with every rehearsal, too, and the cadenza [written by Joachim] went so magnificently at our concert here that the people clapped right on into my coda.6
Brahms continued revising the concerto as Joachim made plans to debut it on an English concert tour that spring. Prior to Joachim’s departure, Brahms informed his friend that he intended to tackle the issue of the concerto’s difficulty with the help of a lesser player:
Please have the solo part of the Concerto copied for me before you leave for England. I want to go through it with a less good violinist than you are because I fear that you are not bold and severe enough [with your criticism].7
While in England, Joachim continued adding his own changes to the concerto. His performances had been much more successful than those in Leipzig and Vienna, and Brahms was eager to see his friend’s adjustments upon his return. The two continued their collaboration until the piece was completed in June of that year. The piano score was sent for publication that same month, and the full score was published in October.
1 Field, 133.
2 Boris Schwarz, “Joseph Joachim and the Genesis of Brahms’s Violin Concerto,” Musical Quarterly 69, no. 4 (Autumn, 1983), 508.
3 Field, 132.
4 Schwarz, 508.
6 Burk, 98.
7 Schwarz, 509.