Johannes Brahms: Violin Concerto in D

Serendipity has always played a large role in determining the direction my interest in classical music would take. For example, when I went in search of Brahms’ Piano Concerto Number 2, a friend suggested a double album that contained that work played by Rubenstein as well as the work for violin played by Jascha Heifitz. On first hearing it, I was smitten, and for a long time, it was the only piece I listened to.

Brahm’s Violin Concerto contained so much passion and seemed to resonate with so many emotions, which–as an adolescent in high school–I experienced at the time. Indeed, it became a kind of vessel into which I could pour all my emotions. Usually I was sad because of some crush on a girl, about which I could do nothing because I was so paralyzed with fear of rejection. I would then retreat to my room and put on the Brahms.

In researching this piece, I found an interesting story about Brahms, which might explain a bit my affinity for this piece. It seems that Brahms was discovered playing piano in beer halls by the virtuoso violinist Joachim. The violinist introduced him to a number of his friends, among them Robert Schumann and his wife Clara. Supposedly, Brahms became quite smitten with Clara, but even after Robert Schumann died, Brahms was not able to come out and declare his love to her. He remained a bachelor all his life.

Maybe this is why I find the concerto full of yearning and unfulfilled passion. In effect, I had often had the same hang-dog personality in high school. Later I realized this went back to something that happened in first grade. My mother used to baby sit a neighbor girl with me when I was little. I grew up thinking of her as my girlfriend, which she was until second grade. The other boys in class used to make fun of me for having a girl friend, but I’d known her so long and she was such a good friend, I just knew we’d grow up to be married. One day, however, she announced to me, in front of a good number of my classmates, that henceforth her boyfriend was a boy named Jeffry who went to another school. I was crushed, and because of that, I dreaded rejection for most of my life.

Brahm’s Violin Concerto starts out deceptively calm with the woodwinds playing the melody, but the orchestra then comes in full of passion. It quietens down for a moment but then it states the main violin theme, which a few moments later, the violin launches into full of energy and anguish. Eventually, the violin then soars into a lyrical section that has to be an expression of love.

Being a typical American male, I was taught that crying was unmanly. “Save your tears for when you really need them,” my father once said to me. Despite that, the second movement of Brahm’s violin concerto, always brings me to the brink of tears. It still strikes me as sad and beautiful. An oboe starts out playing a hauntingly beautiful melody, with a few instruments punctuating its pathos. When the violin starts, it immediately starts improvising on the melody, making it even more poignant. By the time the movement ends, you feel like you’ve watched a Vittorio DeSica film. Fortunately, after being led though the drama of the first and the anguish of the second, the third movement, upbeat and rousing, always seemed to resolve all the tension and make me feel happy. Before the days of Prozac and Zoloft, music was my seratonin reuptake inhibitor.

I’m interested in this phenomenon. Nowadays, when we hurt, we go to a doctor to get a pill. Poof! The hurt goes away. In Brahm’s time, he just wrote music. The music reflects his anguish, sadness, pain, his love and tenderness. Yet by writing, he turned the suffering around and spun the dross into gold.

So many of us today simply try to run from our pain, we are so scared of it. What if you stayed with it for a while, experiencing it, trying to find its cause, and worked through it? Of course, I’m not saying you should tough everything out. I’ve known lots of people who were too proud to do so when they could have saved themselves–and their loved ones–so much unnecessary suffering. But sometimes if we pay attention to pain and fear it can wake us up out of our complacency and inspire us to do great things.

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