The Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 77, was composed by Johannes Brahms in 1878 and dedicated to his friend, the violinist Joseph Joachim. It is Brahms's only violin concerto, and, according to Joachim, one of the four great German violin concerti:
The Germans have four violin concertos. The greatest, most uncompromising is Beethoven's. The one by Brahms vies with it in seriousness. The richest, the most seductive, was written by Max Bruch. But the most inward, the heart's jewel, is Mendelssohn's.
It is scored for solo violin and an orchestra consisting of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons; 4 horns in D, F, and E, 2 trumpets in D, timpani, and strings.
It follows the standard concerto form, with three movements in the pattern quick-slow-quick:
- Allegro non troppo (D major)
- Adagio (F major)
- Allegro giocoso, ma non troppo vivace – Poco più presto (D major)
Originally, the work was planned in four movements like the second piano concerto. The middle movements, one of which was intended to be a scherzo — a mark that Brahms intended a symphonic concerto rather than a virtuoso showpiece — were discarded and replaced with what Brahms called a "feeble Adagio." Some of the discarded material was reworked for the second piano concerto.
Brahms, who was impatient with the minutiae of slurs marking the bowing, rather than phrasing, as his usual practice was, asked Joachim's advice on the writing of the solo violin part. Joachim, who had first been alerted when Brahms informed him in August that "a few violin passages" would be coming in the mail, was eager that the concerto should be playable and idiomatic, and collaborated willingly, not that all his advice was heeded in the final score. The most familiar cadenza, which appears in the first movement, is by Joachim, though a number of people have provided alternatives, including Leopold Auer, Henri Marteau, Max Reger, Fritz Kreisler, Jascha Heifetz, George Enescu, Nigel Kennedy and Rachel Barton Pine. A recording of the concerto released by Ruggiero Ricci has been coupled with Ricci's recordings of sixteen different cadenzas.
The work was premiered in Leipzig on January 1, 1879, by Joachim, who insisted on opening the concert with the Beethoven Violin Concerto, written in the same key, and closing with the Brahms. Joachim's decision could be understandable, though Brahms complained that "it was a lot of D major—and not much else on the program." Joachim was not presenting two established works, but one established one and a new, difficult one by a composer who had a reputation for being difficult. The two works also share some striking similarities. For instance, Brahms has the violin enter with the timpani after the orchestral introduction: this is a clear homage to Beethoven, whose violin concerto also makes unusual use of the timpani.
Brahms conducted the premiere. Various modifications were made between then and the work's publication by Fritz Simrock later in the year.
Critical reaction to the work was mixed: the canard that the work was not so much for violin as "against the violin" is attributed equally to conductor Hans von Bülow and to Joseph Hellmesberger, to whom Brahms entrusted the Vienna premiere, which was however rapturously received by the public. Henryk Wieniawski called the work "unplayable", and the violin virtuoso Pablo de Sarasate refused to play it because he didn't want to "stand on the rostrum, violin in hand and listen to the oboe playing the only tune in the adagio."
Against these critics, modern listeners often feel that Brahms was not really trying to produce a conventional vehicle for virtuoso display; he had higher musical aims. Similar criticisms have been voiced against the string concerti of other great composers, such as Beethoven's Violin Concerto and Hector Berlioz's Harold in Italy, for making the soloist "almost part of the orchestra."
The technical demands on the soloist are formidable, with generous use of multiple stopping, broken chords, rapid scale passages, and rhythmic variation. The difficulty may to some extent be attributed to the composer's being chiefly a pianist.
Nevertheless, Brahms chose the violin-friendly key of D major for his concerto. Since the violin is tuned G'D'A'E, the open strings, resonating sympathetically, add brilliance to the sound. For the same reason, composers of many eras (e.g. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, Prokofiev, Korngold and Khachaturian) have written violin concertos in either D major or D minor.
In popular culture
The third movement of the concerto is the inspiration for the Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice song "Don't Cry for Me Argentina" from the musical Evita.
The third movement is used twice in Paul Thomas Anderson's 2007 film There Will Be Blood, including the end credits.
In Smilla's Sense of Snow by Peter Høeg, Smilla, the protagonist says "I cry because in the universe there is something as beautiful as Kremer playing Brahm's violin concerto".
The violin entrance in the first movement is sampled extensively in Alicia Keys's 2004 song, Karma.