In my recently released novel, Jamie’s Children, Laura Logan spends time preparing to perform the Brahms Violin Concerto. She sees it as a milestone in her career as well as in her personal life. When she finally takes the stage at Carnegie Hall to play this difficult work, she is doing more than playing. For Laura, this is more than music … it’s life.
This has always been a favorite piece of mine, and like Laura, for me the greatest performer of this work is the incomparable Jascha Heifetz. I heard him play it in January of 1956 with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, in Cincinnati’s wonderful Music Hall.
My program from those performances (in those days, the CSO performed twice on a weekend, Friday afternoon and Saturday evening, and as a college freshman I generally went to both) bears the maestro’s autograph. I’m not sure I know how I managed to get backstage and request it, I was so in awe of his artistry. But I will never forget the impact his performance had on me.
While I was writing Jamie’s Children I listened numerous times to Heifetz’s recording, trying to hear it as Laura did. In the book she is spending time in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania at a private home which has been lent to her at a lakeside community. While she’s worked on bits and pieces of the concerto over time, she feels for the first time as an artist – and as a woman – she is ready to attempt this piece. One thought she has, which speaks to what I heard when I listened to Heifetz all those decades ago: You can’t just play this music. You have to live it.
Time to get serious about this, she thought. One reason she found the concerto daunting was because she had always been told it was the most difficult concerto she would ever perform. There’s so much emotion, so much depth. It requires playing with such expression. I want to play it the way the composer intended it to be heard; to find the richness and majesty and tenderness and beauty that’s there. I hope I’m finally ready to do this.
She opened the score and turned on the recording by Heifetz, the twentieth-century virtuoso violinist considered by many to be one of the finest violinists of all time, and an artist she admired immensely.
The opening section really sets up the listener, she thought. You hear these wonderful, strong musical statements, and they have to be followed by something dazzling. And it doesn’t disappoint, right off the bat you’re challenged with some difficult playing, almost like a streak of lightning splitting the air.
She’d been practicing the opening ascending run for years. It had to be perfect. And it had to be strong; as strong as the music which preceded it. It has to grow out of what the orchestra has been playing. It’s all one thought. That’s one thing that makes this music magnificent. It’s almost a symphony with an incidental violin solo.
Then the violin introduces the third theme and it’s unbelievable, it’s so meltingly lovely. She felt a thrill run up her spine and she had tears in her eyes. Almost like a stormy night followed by the clouds breaking and the most beautiful sunrise ever. So it has to be played completely differently. And oh, Heifetz certainly does that on this recording. Brahms could sure write pretty tunes! These diverse ideas … the strong, kind of … well, Teutonic feeling at the beginning, then the slightly melancholy music that follows … and next the lovely, sensitive third theme, which evokes everything beautiful in the entire universe. All these ideas have a kind of dialogue. They weave through and around each other, never coming to rest. You can’t just play this music. You have to live it.
The lyrical second movement she felt confident about. The third movement had more challenges; the orchestra bounced into a brilliant, exciting theme that seemed to Laura very Hungarian. Brahms loved Hungarian folk music; he loved the Gypsy violin. All of that was in the third movement, and the demands on the soloist were extreme: repeated rapid runs ─ dear Lord, Jascha, that’s fast! ─ which had to be played powerfully to be heard above the storm of the orchestra. Large jumps that were awkward to play.
It’s so long. It requires a lot of strength; a lot of endurance. I’ll need these two years, she thought. But she was exhilarated and now excited to feel she was almost ready to play this magnificent composition. What a thrill it will be to share this incredible music with an audience.
And that’s why I love to play, she thought. To share the music. To make it soar.
Jamie's Children is available on Amazon, $13.50 paperback, $3.99 Kindle.