Program note by Philip Hale for the Boston Symphony Orchestra performances by concertmaster Anton Witek (formerly concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic) conducted by Dr. Karl Muck, November 24 & 25, 1916.
CONCERTO IN D MAJOR, FOR VIOLIN, OP. 77 . . . JOHANNES BRAHMS
(Born at Hamburg, May 7, 1833; died at Vienna, April 3, 1897.)
This concerto was written, during summer and fall of 1878, at Pörtschach on Lake Wörther in Carinthia for Joseph Joachim, dedicated to him, and first played by him under the direction of the composer at a Gewandhaus concert, Leipsic, on January 1, 1879. The first performance in Boston was by Franz Kneisel at a concert of the Boston Symphony Orchestra on December 7, 1889, when Mr. Kneisel played a cadenza of his own composition. It has since then been played at these concerts by Messrs. Brodsky (November 28, 1891) and Kneisel (April 15, 1893, February 13, 1897, with a cadenza by Charles Martin Loeffler, and at the concert in memory of Governor Wolcott, December 29, 1900); by Miss MacCarthy, November 15, 1902, December 19, 1903; by Mr. Kreisler, March 11, 1905; by Mr. Heermann, November 25, 1905; by Mr. Wendling, October 26, 1907; by Mr. Berber, November 26, 1910; by Mr. Witek, January 20, 1912; by Mr. Flesch, April 3, 1914.
The orchestral part of this concerto is scored for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, kettledrums, and strings.
Brahms, not confident of his ability to write with full intelligence for the solo violin, was aided greatly by Joachim, who, it appears from the correspondence between him and Brahms, gave advice inspired by his own opinions concerning the violinist’s art.
The concerto was originally in four movements. It contained a Scherzo which was thrown overboard. Max Kalbeck, the biographer of Brahms, thinks it highly probable that it found its way into the second pianoforte concerto. The Adagio was so thoroughly revised that it was practically new.
The violin part was sent to Joachim on August 22, 1878. There was talk of a rehearsal with the Hochschule Orchestra in Berlin in October; to produce it in Vienna; afterwards Joachim was to play it in other cities. Clara Schumann had already heard Joachim play a movement of the concerto in Hamburg, when the two and Brahms were attending a music festival. She wrote to Levi: “You can easily imagine that it is a concerto in which the orchestra and the solo player are wholly blended. The mood of the movement is very similar to that of the second symphony, and the tonality is the same, D major.” On December 13, 1878, Elisabet von Herzogenberg in a letter dated Leipsic asked Brahms if the violin concerto was really not completed. “We heard a wail to that effect from Utrecht, but refuse to believe it. It looks so unlike you to promise more than you can carry out; and you did promise us the concerto at Arnoldstein—dear old sleepy Arnoldstein, where we had so much time for counterpoint!” Brahms replied two days afterwards: “Joachim is coming here, and I should have a chance of trying the concerto through with him, and deciding for or against a public performance. If we do that, and are fairly satisfied with it, you can still hear it afterwards.” On December 21 he wrote: “I may say that Joachim is quite keen on playing the concerto, so it may come off after all. I am against having the symphony” (the one in C minor) “on the same evening, because the orchestra will be tired as it is, and I don’t know how difficult the concerto will prove. I expect to be in Berlin by the 28th to rehearse it on the piano with Joachim. . . . The concerto is in D major, which should be taken into consideration in arranging the programme.” Now Brahms had written in the fall that he hated to think of Joachim’s playing in Austria, while he “stood there doing nothing,” and the only alternative was to conduct. The middle movements had been discarded; “they were the best of course,” but he was inserting a “feeble Adagio.”
Herzogenberg wrote to Brahms that at Leipsic he would need only five first violin parts, five second, three violas, and eight basses, “or, if these are copied separately, five ‘celli and three double basses. . . . I am not going to bother about the keys; the concerto may be in G-sharp minor, for all I know!”
Was the delay in producing the concerto the fault of Brahms or of Joachim? Brahms did not send the new “beautifully written” manuscript of the voice part to Joachim until the middle of December. Joachim’s letters were, to quote Kalbeck’s characterization, strikingly stiff, cool, and forced. Was he vexed because Brahms was so long in sending him the manuscript; or was he disappointed in the music itself; or was he afraid lest Hugo Heermann might play it, for Brahms purposed to stop over at Frankfort on his way to Berlin. He complained, at any rate, of the “unaccustomed difficulties.” Even as late as April, 1879, when he had played the concerto in Leipsic, Vienna, Budapest, Cologne, and London, he wrote to Brahms concerning some changes in the score which the composer had accepted: “With these exceptions the piece, especially the first movement, pleases me more and more. The last two times I played without notes. That a solo composition has been performed in two London Philharmonic concerts in succession has happened in the history of the society only once, when Mendelssohn played his piano concerto in G minor (manuscript).”
The programme of the Gewandhaus concert in Leipsic on January 1, 1879, was as follows:—
Franz Lachner, overture from Suite No. 4; Mozart, Aria from “Die Entführung aus dem Serail” (Mme. Marcella Sembrich); Brahms, Concerto for the violin (new, manuscript, led by the composer, played by Joseph Joachim); Chopin, Songs with pianoforte: Notturno, Mazurka (Mme. Sembrich); Bach, Chaconne (Joseph Joachim); Beethoven, Symphony No. 7.
Miss Florence May in her “Life of Johannes Brahms” quotes Dörffel:” Joachim played with a love and devotion which brought home to us in every bar the direct or indirect share he has had in the work. As to the reception, the first movement was too new to be distinctly appreciated by the audience, the second made considerable way, the last aroused great enthusiasm.” Miss May adds that the critic Bernsdorf was less unsympathetic than usual.
But Kalbeck, a still more enthusiastic worshipper of Brahms than Miss May, tells a different story. “The work was heard respectfully, but it did not awaken a bit of enthusiasm. It seemed that Joachim had not sufficiently studied the concerto or he was severely indisposed.” Brahms conducted in a state of evident excitement. A comic incident came near being disastrous. The composer stepped on the stage in gray street trousers, for on account of a visit he had been hindered in making a complete change of dress. Furthermore he forgot to fasten again the unbuttoned suspenders, so that in consequence of his lively directing his shirt showed between his trousers and waistcoat. “These laughter-provoking trifles were not calculated for elevation of mood.” When the concerto was played in Vienna at Joachim’s own concert on January 14, 1879, Hellmesberger conducted. Hanslick, whose admiration for the music of Brahms is well known, praised highly the workmanship of the concerto, but found the music shy in invention and fancy with half-set sails. He was the first who found a resemblance between the chief theme of the first Allegro and the beginning of the “Eroica.” The twelve-year-old Mozart in “Bastien and Bastienne” anticipated the two. Quoting Andreas Moser’s remark that Brahms demanded an intelligence and a sense of style that are not always found in the performances of the greatest virtuosos, Kalbeck relates the story of Brahms embracing and kissing the little Bronislaw Hubermann “whose genius for the violin had comprehended immediately the concerto with the fingers of his naturally trained hand.”
In spite of Leipsic Brahms soon recovered his spirits. He wrote to Elisabet von Herzogenberg from Vienna in January: “My concert tour was a real down-hill affair after Leipsic; no more pleasure in it. Perhaps that is a slight exaggeration, though, for friends and hospitality are not everything on a concert tour. In some trifling ways it was even more successful; the audiences were kinder and more alive. Joachim played my piece more beautifully with every rehearsal, too, and the cadenza went so magnificently at our concert here that the people clapped right on into my coda. But what is all that compared to the privilege of going home to Humboldtstrasse and being pulled to pieces by three womenkind—since you object to the word ‘females’?”
The composition is fairly orthodox in form. The three movements are separate, and the traditional tuttis, soli, cadenzas, etc., are pretty much as in the old-fashioned pieces of this kind; but in the first movement the long solo cadenza precedes the taking up of the first theme by the violin. The modernity is in the prevailing spirit and in the details. Furthermore, it is not a work for objective virtuoso display.
The first theme of the first movement, Allegro ma non troppo, D major, 3-4, of a somewhat pastoral character, is proclaimed by violas, ‘cellos, bassoons, and horns; and the development is carried on by the full orchestra in harmony. In the course of the introduction this theme is pushed aside by other motives; and it first becomes again prominent through wood-wind and strings in the highly developed introductory cadenza of the solo violin. The free fantasia begins with an orchestral tutti in A minor, and for some time the orchestra carries it on alone; then the working-out is continued between orchestra and violin. In the coda, after the orchestral fury, Brahms has given opportunity for the violinist to introduce an unaccompanied cadenza. The second movement, Adagio, F major, 2-4, is in the nature of a serenade movement. It may be called a romanza. The chief song is played first by the oboe, which is accompanied by wind instruments; then it is played in changed form by the violin, which also plays a more emotional second theme, and ornaments it in the development. After frequent modulations in the development of the second theme there is a return to F major and the first theme, which is sung by the solo violin.
The Finale, a rondo in D major, 2-4, is built on three themes. There is brilliant work for the solo violin,—double-stopping, florid running passages, arpeggios, technical demands on the player.
It may be here added that Brahms had an intense admiration for Viotti’s violin concerto in A minor. He wrote from Pörtschach in May, 1878, that the people as a rule did not understand and did not respect “the very best compositions as Mozart’s pianoforte concerto in D minor and the violin concerto of Viotti,” alluded to above.
Mr. ANTON WITEK, violinist, was born at Saaz, Bohemia, January 7, 1872. He studied the violin under Anton Bennewitz at Prague, and in 1894 was chosen concertmaster of the Philharmonic Orchestra of Berlin. Mr. Witek commanded attention in Germany in 1895 by his performance in one evening of three violin concertos (by Beethoven, Brahms, and Paganini). Since 1894 he has given concerts in all the European countries with the Danish pianist, Vita Gerhardt, who is now Mrs. Witek. In 1903 Mr. and Mrs. Witek, with Mr. Joseph Malkin, who was then solo violoncellist of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, formed the Berlin Philharmonic Trio. (Mr. Malkin became a member of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in October, 1914.) In 1907 Mr. Witek played in Berlin the newly discovered violin concerto in A major of Mozart, for the first time, and in 1909 in the same city the newly discovered violin concerto in C major of Haydn, also for the first time.
Mr. Witek was engaged as concertmaster of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1910. He has played in Boston at concerts of this orchestra the following concertos:—
Beethoven’s Concerto in D major, October 29, 1910; November 14, 1914; Brahms’s Concerto in D major, January 20, 1912; Bruch’s Concerto No. 2, Op. 44, January 18, 1913; Tschaikowsky’s Concerto in D major, Op. 35, January 24, 1914; Beethoven’s Concerto in D major, November 14, 1914; Joachim’s Concerto in the Hungarian manner, February 11, 1916.
He has given several chamber concerts in Boston, with Mrs. Witek and Mr. Malkin. Mr. Witek has also given chamber concerts in New York.