Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes: Johannes Brahms, Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor

Yesterday’s Music History Monday post marked the premiere of Johannes Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor. Nearly five years in the writing, the concerto received its premiere on January 22, 1859, in the German city of Hanover. Brahms himself was the soloist, supported by the Hanover Court Orchestra and conducted by Brahms’ great friend, the violinist Joseph Joachim.

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897, seated) and Joseph Joachim (1831-1907) in 1867
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897, seated) and Joseph Joachim (1831-1907) in 1867

As we observed in yesterday’s post, Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 is bound up entirely with his reaction to his friend and mentor Robert Schumann’s suicide attempt; his feelings towards Robert and his wife, the pianist Clara Wieck Schumann; the years he spent with Clara and her children as both a surrogate husband and father during Robert’s institutionalization; Robert’s death; and Brahms’ decision that he could not marry Clara after Robert’s death. No wonder Brahms was consumed by the piece: it was a virtual diary of his feelings, experiences, and musical growth from the time he met the Schumanns in 1853 to the time he left Clara and returned to his hometown of Hamburg in 1856.

As such, the concerto took on a terribly outsized degree of importance to Brahms. The consequences of this emotional investment in the concerto were, for Brahms, to be disastrous.

Read on!

Agathe von Siebold (1835-1909)

Sometime during the Spring of 1858, Brahms’ friend, the German composer and conductor Julius Otto Grimm (1827-1903) invited both Brahms and the widow Clara Schumann to vacation with him in the beautiful, medieval Saxon city of Göttingen. Brahms had no desire to go, and in a letter to Clara, he groused about having to be social and waste his time. Typically, Clara took this personally, convinced that Brahms was really complaining about having to waste his time with her. Clara’s letter back to Brahms has survived. She responded:

“I am very upset by what you write about Göttingen. That you so much dislike the idea of going there is hateful to me. I am waiting for another letter, my Johannes. If only I could find longing as sweet as you seem to find it. [Here, Clara undoubtedly meant her longing for him.] It [unrequited longing] only gives me pain and fills my heart with unspeakable woe.”

Brahms quickly wrote Clara back and told her that to make her happy, he would indeed vacation in Göttingen. Soon enough, Clara would wish Brahms hadn’t gone.

Brahms and Agathe in 1858
Brahms and Agathe in 1858

It was a surly and ill-tempered Johannes Brahms that arrived in Göttingen in the end of July. But it took him only a few days to be taken with the charms of the town and one of its citizens in particular, a 23-year-old soprano named Agathe von Siebold. Dark haired and lush-of-figure, we’re told that Agathe was intelligent, that she had a great sense of humor, sang like an angel, and was always game for a practical joke. Johannes Brahms thought she was perfect, and fell head over heels for her.

The vacation in Göttingen turned out to be a most excellent one for the 25-year-old Brahms. Along with meeting Agathe, he fell in with a group of young men and women his own age for perhaps the first time in his life. Unfortunately, the odd-person out of this Arcadia-in-Göttingen was Clara, who was nearly 39 years old and the mother of seven children (five of which she had brought along with her to Göttingen).Try though Clara did, she simply did not fit in. As a result, she took to moping around, always upset about something or other. As such, it broke no one’s heart (except perhaps Clara’s herself) when she suddenly packed up her family and fled Göttingen one evening, after having seen Brahms and Agathe sharing a lip-lock.

Brahms, stewing in his testosterone, stayed on until September. Having returned to Hamburg, he wrote daily love letters to Agathe (all later destroyed). He returned to Göttingen on January 1 (1859), gave Agathe a big hug and asked her to marry him. She said “Ja,” and the two went out and bought engagement rings for one another.

Ain’t that sweet?

The Premiere

Johannes and his Agathe parted on January 8 because Brahms had major gig coming up, the biggest and most important public premiere of his career thus far: that of his Piano Concerto in D minor in Hanover on January 22, 1859. As we previously observed, Brahms himself was the piano soloist, accompanied by the Hanover Court Orchestra and conducted by Joseph Joachim.…

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