The Double Concerto: An Antidote to Solitude
by Julian Killough-Miller
The Double Concerto is, at its core, about the value of companionship. Rather than showcasing the talents of one star performer, Brahms complicates the concerto dynamic in this piece by putting two musicians in front of the orchestra. Together, they weave a gorgeous tapestry of sound, brilliant in its sinuous melody and breathtaking in its kaleidoscopic texture. Sometimes, the solo violin and cello combine forces and unite as one eight-stringed super-instrument. But more often, the two instruments sound as though they are old friends having a slowly unfolding conservation. To better understand the dialogue being shared between the two soloists, one must look into the story of Brahms’s friendship with the work’s unofficial dedicatee, the violinist Joseph Joachim.
Brahms considered Joachim to be his closest musical friend. The composer frequently relied on Joachim’s advice on writing violin parts, since Brahms was a keyboardist and did not play violin. As a monument to their musical relationship, Brahms dedicated his only violin concerto to Joachim, who premiered the work in 1879. After years of friendship and collaboration, a rift formed five years later between the two when Brahms crossed a line and got involved in Joachim’s marital crisis. Joachim suspected his wife Amalie of cheating on him with Brahms’s publisher, Fritz Rimrock. Brahms was skeptical of the supposed affair and wrote a letter to Amalie in which he essentially took her side in the dispute, defending her honor. Amalie
then used this letter as testimony in divorce court, which left Joachim feeling utterly betrayed by Brahms. The two did not speak for years.
Brahms was devastated that one of his closest friends and musical accomplices was no longer a part of his life. What to do? How to rekindle their friendship? True to form, Brahms did what he did best: he wrote music. He initially thought to write another violin concerto for Joachim to play, but the ever-cautious composer suspected that his friend would reject such an obvious attempt at a musical olive branch. The opportunity for a truly special composition finally arose when the cellist of Joachim’s string quartet, Robert Haussmann, begged that Brahms write a cello concerto for him to play. Brahms took advantage of the situation by granting Haussmann his wish and in addition, inviting his long-lost friend to play violin in a “Double Concerto”, an innovative and nearly unprecedented form that he knew the eager violinist could not resist. It worked! Joachim agreed to thaw his icy relations with Brahms when he consented to come to
the composer’s house to rehearse the piece with Hausmann. Even after the premiere of the work, Joachim may have aired some final resentments towards the composer when he publicly complained that the work was not among Brahms’s finest compositions. Still, following Brahms’s musical peace offering, the two remained friends for the remainder of Brahms’s life. Not only is the story a touching one about the power of music to heal rifts between friends, but it can also inform our way of hearing the musical dialogue between the two soloists in the piece.
Throughout the first movement, the cello and violin engage in an animated conversation. After the stern orchestral blast that opens the piece, the cellist seizes the limelight with desperate urgency, unleashing a wave of loneliness, revealing a solitary soul in its darkest hour. It trails off into silence as the sympathetic winds console the cellist with a soothing, sighing melody in a major key. Then something magnificent happens. The violin answers the cellist’s cries of anguish with an heart-rending plea of its own! Ecstatic that it is not alone after all, the cello quickly responds sympathetically, and the two enter into an animated musical friendship. From this point forward the violin and cello continue to interact in the contradictory ways that even the closest of friends do: sometimes complementing each other, sometimes arguing; sometimes chasing each other, sometimes walking together; sometimes finishing each other’s sentences,
sometimes talking over each other; sometimes laughing together when things are good; sometimes comforting each other when times are tough. While oftentimes restless, the dialogue between the performers never reaches the level of pain felt by the cellist and the violinist in their opening statements of the first movement. Perhaps the ultimate signal of their friendship comes in the third and final movement when the two soloists sing in harmony as they dance through much of the gypsy-tinted texture in harmonious thirds.
Beyond his hopes to reunite with Joachim, one can hear an affirmation of friendship throughout the concerto. Concertos are often said to present a struggle between the soloist and the orchestra as a symbol for the individual’s attempt to shine through the overbearing force of society. In support of each other, the soloists do not have to go through this plight on their own. As a man who spent his life as a bachelor, Brahms was no stranger to solitude. Nor was Joachim, for that matter, whose motto at one point was “ Frei amber einsam ,” meaning “free but lonely.” By giving each soloist a musical partner, neither has to bear the burden alone. For those who feel isolated from time to time, Brahms’s Concerto is a reminder that the weight of the world is a load better shared side by side with an old friend.