Scratched Into Our Souls

Brahms – ‘Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat’ | August 15, 2010

The other night I had the great opportunity to spend an evening at the Hollywood Bowl listening to the beautiful tones of one of my favorite piano concertos of all time, Brahms’ second from 1881, performed by the immensely talented Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, as well as gifted piano player Emmanuel Ax. It’s a brilliant piece of music, and one of the longest piano concertos in the repertory. Brahms’ spent three years writing it, and his care and craft are apparent in the music from the opening melodic line to the closing material.

The piece begins with a huge opening movement, lasting nearly 17 minutes depending on variations in tempo. The pianist constantly fights for supremacy against the orchestra, and the two seem interlocked in a battle of the ages. Of course, these sorts of issues were clearly present in the social anxieties of the times, as the determination to be an exceptional and unique individual while still functioning as a part of society/the group creates problems. The paradox itself is perfectly presented in the genre, as the piano concerto has always seemed to be a two-part genre where pianist and orchestra are separate but equally important.

The second movement is a shock to the audience like no other. Tradition was that the concerto’s second movement be a slow movement to contrast with the faster opening movements. Hoping to extend his piano concerto to “Emperor” length and to hoist his composition into the canon, Brahms instead includes what he calls “a little wisp of a scherzo.” This statement deserves some sort of award for understatement of the century, as the second movement is a lengthy and tumultuous scherzo that brings even more energy and tension to the piece than the previous movement had. 

The third movement finally reveals the slow movement that the audience had expected before being taken to other worlds in the preceding scherzo, but Brahms breaks tradition once again. This third movement begins with a gorgeous cello solo, taking all focus away from the “individual” of the piano and reminding that the orchestra must always be comprised of individuals as well.

The final movement is another thundering and whimsical movement, as the piano and orchestra trade musical phrases over and over until finally deciding to simply give their paradoxical fight a rest. The realization here is that in order to distinguish oneself as an individual or as a group, the opposite idea must also exist. Individuals do not exist without groups and groups do not exist without individuals. In their quest to destroy one another throughout the second piano concerto, the two become enlightened and realize that destroying their opposite would be to destroy their own identity. If only all conflict-resolutions sounded this gorgeous.

Listen: Johannes Brahms – “Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major, Op. 83; 2. Allegro appassionato”


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    About Me: Chris Robinson

    A budding writer and avid music fan from Los Angeles, California, I am a recent graduate of Music History from UCLA's Herb Alpert School of Music. I've written for the UCLA Daily Bruin, graduated valedictorian from high school, and enjoy many different types of music, from The Beatles to Beethoven, and everything in between. I wrote my senior thesis on lyrical misinterpretations in popular music, focusing on Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA."

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