Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: Johannes Brahms, Piano Concerto No. 1

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) in 1858
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) in 1858

We mark the premiere on January 22, 1859 – 165 years ago today – of Johannes Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1, in the German city of Hanover.

No other work by Brahms caused him such effort; never before or after did he so agonize over a piece, working and reworking it over and over again.


On October 1, 1853, the 20-year-old Johannes Brahms showed up at the door of Robert and Clara Schumann’s house in Düsseldorf, in the Rhineland.  At the time, Brahms was pretty much a complete unknown outside of his hometown of Hamburg.  He was visiting the Schumann’s at the behest of the violinist and conductor Joseph Joachim (1831-1907) who, although only two years older than Brahms, was already world famous.  

Physically, the young Brahms looked virtually nothing like the bearded, portly, cigar-smoking, bear-like dude of his later years; at twenty he was described as being:

“a shy, awkward, nearsighted young man, blonde, delicate, almost wispy, boyish in appearance as well as in manner (the beard was still 22 years away) and with a voice whose high pitch was a constant embarrassment to him.”

Clara (1819-1896) and Robert Schumann (1810-1856) circa 1850
Clara (1819-1896) and Robert Schumann (1810-1856) circa 1850

This 20-year-old kid might not have looked like our familiar image of Brahms, but his extraordinary talents as a composer and pianist were already there, and in spades.  He performed some his early music for Robert and Clara and they were, very simply, gob smacked. 

That evening Clara wrote in her journal:

“Here is one who comes as if sent from God!  He played us sonatas and scherzos of his own, all of them rich in fantasy, depth of feeling and mastery of form.  Robert could see no reason to suggest any changes.  A great future lies before him, for when he comes to the point of writing for orchestra, then he will have found the true medium for his imagination.” 

Robert’s diary entry that night was rather more abbreviated:

“Visit from Brahms (a genius).”

Brahms stayed with the Schumanns for a full month, and bonded with them like a wad of gum to the bottom of your high tops. …

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