Few composers in history have been simultaneously so talented and so unwilling to attempt major works as Johannes Brahms. His first work for a soloist with orchestra, a piano concerto intended to showcase his own pianistic abilities, had to wait until he was 35 years old. The idea of a concerto for the violin, an instrument he did not play, was even more daunting, waiting another 20 years to be attempted. Typically, he was unsure of the quality of his work, writing to the dedicatee, Joseph Joachim, that ``... you should correct it, not sparing the quality of the composition... I shall be satisfied if you will mark those parts that are difficult, awkward, or impossible to play.''
Joachim found the work playable, suggesting only minor changes. Several months of revision and rehearsal followed, with Joachim supplying the first-movement cadenza (as was traditional) for the first performance. As is all too often the case, however, the work was not well received, with one critic cracking that it was a concerto against, not for, the violin. Fritz Simrock, Brahms' publisher, wanted to release it anyway, but had to contend with the composer's prankish streak: in one letter he said that the work wasn't worth much, but he nevertheless promised not to incinerate it!
It took many years for the concerto to find success. At first, only Joachim and a few others would attempt it, and few audiences seemed to enjoy the work. But as time progressed and the harmonic language began to become familiar, more and more violinists added it to their repertoire, and by 1900 it had become one of the most frequently played of all violin concerti, a position it continues to hold a century later.
© 1999, Geoff Kuenning
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