From Juvenescence to Maturity: Johannes Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto

Ryan Modafe

January 05, 2024

The story of Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto begins with his first Piano Concerto, premiered in 1859 in Leipzig, Germany with almost a decade of tireless revision and editing, presenting his youthful and exuberant side as a composer. Unfortunately for Brahms, his first piano concerto failed miserably in gaining any critical acclaim at the time and ultimately seemed to close the door to piano concerto composition for him indefinitely. After this crushing defeat, Brahms wrote to his close friend, violinist Joseph Joachim, “a second will sound very different,” but when that second would come remained a mystery. 

Through the 22 year period hiatus from his first piano concerto, Brahms wrote many different compositions including symphonies, quintets, sonatas for various instruments, and much piano repertoire. However, as he grew older he became more and more conscious of what would be his lasting legacy as a composer among the greats and most importantly his image in comparison to the legends of the past such as Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, and others. This deliberate foresight most likely led to the greatest maturation of his music alongside his ever growing experience in life. 

The sketches for the second piano concerto began in 1878 ending in 1881 when the piece was premiered by Brahms himself as the soloist through a multi-country tour across Europe. Both to the credit of his immensely profound composition abilities and well-established worldwide fame, his piece was an instant success received well by almost all as a monstrous piece worthy of being placed among great concerti as Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto immediately inducted into the standard piano repertoire. 

Despite Brahms’ repeated hints to his friend who he wrote of this concerto to, Elisabet von Herzogenberg, about how he had created a “tiny, tiny piano concerto with a tiny, tiny wisp of a scherzo,” this was the largest and arguably most complex piano concerto written at the time. Spanning a massive 50 minutes, this colossal piece harbors a seemingly unending amount of richness to uncover and new messages to discover every time it is performed.

The first movement begins with the harkening of a horn in dialogue with the piano, as if rallying the orchestra to charge ahead in the proceeding bars. Immediately following begins a finger twisting, roaring, and burning cadenza making the intentions of the piano clear to convey the most raw and pure emotions possible with the utmost tension. The beginning motives are warped throughout the orchestral tutti and are echoed by the piano in a later solo moment. The movement ends with the dying waves of the orchestra and piano followed by a blast of trills into the final bars, setting the scene for the following movement.

The second movement, originally written for Brahms’ Violin Concerto with Joseph Joachim, adds a unique and unorthodox twist to the conventional piano concerto with three movements, by adding a fourth that is anything but a “tiny wisp” with its tumultuous atmosphere creating the most stormy of scenes and ultimately being the most grieving of the four movements.

The third movement almost entirely eliminates the sole dependence on piano and moves the burden to the cello to push forward the somber and nostalgic atmosphere, revealing what must have been going through Brahms’ mind at the time. 

The final movement has five distinct themes and is in the rondo form blasted to epic proportions with its equally as deep and moving motives despite its seemingly lighthearted and jovial nature compared to the other movements. It ends the concerto in a style that could only be characteristic of Brahms with its fat orchestral sound and sweeping piano runs ironically composed in such a way to make them sound easy giving a proper grandiose end to the monumental work.