Brahms somehow found time to compose his Third Piano Sonata in mid-to-late 1853, the very months that saw him transformed from a gifted but unknown 19-year-old pianist to a 20-year-old star.
In the spring, on a concert tour with the flamboyant Hungarian violinist Eduard Reményi, Brahms met Joseph Joachim, an entirely different sort of violinist whose sober musical ideals were very akin to Brahms’ own. In June the tour took Brahms and Reményi to Weimar, where they met Liszt and his considerable band of followers. In a split that was a microcosm of the battle lines forming in German music, Reményi quickly joined Liszt’s circle and stayed in Weimar, while Brahms left to spend July and August in Göttingen visiting Joachim, who would remain a lifelong friend and colleague. Armed with an introduction from Joachim, Brahms visited Schumann in Düsseldorf at the end of September. Schumann must have been bowled over from the very first, since his famous article about Brahms in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik appeared only a month later, on October 28. Schumann wrote:
“sooner or later … someone would and must appear, fated to give us the ideal expression of times, one who would not gain his mastery by gradual stages, but rather spring fully armed like Minerva from the head of Jove. And he has come, a young blood at whose cradle graces and heroes mounted guard. His name is Johannes Brahms…”
Schumann was the most important musical journalist in Germany, and his effusive testimonial flashed as bright a spotlight as could be shown on the grateful, if embarrassed, young composer. Overnight, the German musical establishment knew of “Schumann’s young Messiah.” In November Brahms went to Leipzig, where he had several works published by a major publishing house, and met Hector Berlioz, who was impressed with Brahms and his music. “I am grateful to you for having let me make the acquaintance of this diffident, audacious young man who has taken it into his head to make a new music. He will suffer greatly,” Berlioz wrote to Joachim.
The Sonata written in the midst of this travel and hubbub justifies Schumann’s Olympian fanfare. It is a work of symphonic proportions and scope, bursting at the seams with ideas to the point that it needs an extra movement to explore different directions with material from earlier movements. It is his biggest solo piano work, and indeed his last Piano Sonata.
The first movement, with its tumultuous principal theme and serene secondary material, is typical of the sharp contrasts that would always mark Brahms’ music (his detractors complained that he lacked coherence), as would the complex, constantly shifting rhythms.
The andante, containing moments of great melodic tenderness and climactic passion, is headed by a verse from a Sternau poem:
“The evening dims
The moonlight shines
There are two hearts
That join in love
And embrace in rapture”
While the second movement is a great flowering of melodies that are allowed time to run their course, the boisterous, bounding scherzo is built around short phrases that are broken into even smaller fragments, with a striking sequence of kaleidoscopically shifting arpeggios, and a middle section that moves in stately block chords.
The extra movement is the fourth, “Rückblick” (“looking back”). It looks back mainly on the slow movement, though there are elements from the other two (the short-short-short-long figure, so reminiscent of Beethoven, occurs, though not prominently, in both the first and third movements), recast as a brooding meditation, remarkable in places for its inexorable momentum and in others for a static use of sound and harmony that could be mistaken for Debussy.
The finale is a rondo that has nearly everything in it, including a jaunty main theme, swelling lyrical melody, stately marches, and even a few moments of pianistic bravura.
— Howard Posner