Composers Datebook®

Brahms breaks the rules

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 15 - I. Maestoso - Poco più moderato Maurizio Pollini, piano; Berlin Philharmonic; Claudio Abbado, conductor. DG 447041

Composer's Datebook - Jan. 21, 2023


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January 21, 2023


The first Piano Concerto by Brahms received its premiere public performance on today’s date in 1859 with the Hanover Court Orchestra under the direction of Brahms’s close friend Joseph Joachim and its 25-year composer as soloist.

That first night audience had never heard anything quite like it. In his biography of Brahms, Jan Swafford describes what was expected of a piano concerto back then, namely “virtuosic brilliance, dazzling cadenzas, not too many minor keys, [and nothing] too tragic.”

“To the degree that these were the rules,” writes Swafford, “[Brahms] violated every one of them.”

His concerto opens with heaven-storming drama, continues with deeply melancholic lyricism, and closes with something akin to hard-fought, even grim, triumph. Rather than a display of flashy virtuosity, Brahms’s concerto comes off as somber and deeply emotional. A second performance, five days later in Leipzig, was hissed.

"I am experimenting and feeling my way,” Brahms wrote to his friend Joachim, adding, "all the same, the hissing was rather too much."

Now regarded a dark Romantic masterpiece, it’s important to remember how long it took audiences to warm to Brahms’ music. The American composer Elliott Carter recalled that even in the 1920s, Boston concert goers used to quip that the exit signs meant, "This way in case of Brahms."

Music Played in Today's Program

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 15 - I. Maestoso - Poco più moderato Maurizio Pollini, piano; Berlin Philharmonic; Claudio Abbado, cond. DG 447041

On This Day


  • 1899 - Russian-born American composer Alexander Tcherepnin, in St. Petersburg (Julian date: Jan. 9);


  • 1851 - German opera composer Albert Lortzing, age 49, in Berlin;

  • 1948 - Italian composer Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari, age 72, in Venice;


  • 1713 - Handel: opera "Teseo" (Julian date: Jan. 10);

  • 1725 - Bach: Sacred Cantata No. 111 ("Was mein Gott will, das g'scheh allzeit") performed on the 3rd Sunday after Epiphany as part of Bach's second annual Sacred Cantata cycle in Leipzig (1724/25);

  • 1816 - Cherubini: "Requiem," in Paris;

  • 1880 - Rimsky-Korsakov: opera "May Night," in St. Petersburg, Napravnik conducting (Julian date: Jan. 9);

  • 1904 - Janácek: opera "Jenufa" in Brno at the National Theater;

  • 1927 - Roussel: Suite in F for orchestra, in Boston;

  • 1929 - Schreker: opera "Der Schatzgräber" (The Treasure Hunter), in Frankfurt at the Opernhaus;

  • 1930 - Shostakovich: Symphony No. 3 ("May First"), in Leningrad;

  • 1936 - Gershwin: "Catfish Row" Suite (from the opera "Porgy and Bess"), by the Philadelphia Orchestra, Alexander Smallens conducting;

  • 1947 - Martinu: "Toccata e due canzona" for chamber orchestra, in Basel, Switzerland;

  • 1968 - Bernstein: song "So Pretty" (a song protesting the Vietnam War) at Philharmonic Hall (now Avery Fisher Hall) in New York City, with singer Barbra Streisand and the composer at the piano;

  • 1968 - Allan Pettersson: Symphony No. 6, in Stockholm;

  • 1988 - Christopher Rouse: Symphony No. 1, by the Baltimore Symphony, David Zinman conducting;