Sonata in F minor, Op. 34b
The Sonata in F minor is the second stop on this work’s way to its final form as the Piano Quintet, one of the monuments of Brahms’ chamber output. Brahms first composed the Sonata as a String Quintet in F minor in 1862, reworking it two years later when he needed something to play with Carl Tausig for a concert in Vienna. The duo – two of Europe’s most formidable keyboard talents during the second half of the 19th century – premiered the Sonata on April 17, 1864 at a Brahms marathon that included a motet, several songs, and the B-flat major Sextet.
The Sonata opens with a slightly tentative theme that almost immediately asserts itself. The power of this opening soon yields to a melodically rich and varied music that reminds us of Brahms’ stature as a composer for the voice. Force and lyricism alternate over the course of the movement before the assertive opening theme brings it to a close.
On playing through the slow movement, Clara Schumann, wife of composer Robert and a close friend of Brahms, enthused, “What an adagio! How rapturously it sings and rings from beginning to end!” A rather serious scherzo follows, its exultant trio singing out from its turbulent surroundings. The finale brings the sonata to a powerful close, opening with a concentrated slow introduction before launching into the allegro.
The music pleased not only Clara Schumann, but also Princess Anna of Hesse, who heard Schumann and Brahms play the work. The music moved the princess so much that she gave Brahms the manuscript of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 as a token of her gratitude. Not bad for 40 minutes at the piano.
John Mangum is a Ph.D. candidate in history at UCLA. He has also written for Los Angeles Opera, the Hollywood Bowl, and the Hong Kong Arts Festival.
Length: 40 minutes