Sonata No. 3
No composer ever demonstrated more convincingly the value of a good, long wait than Brahms. He wrote and discarded at least four works in the venerable violin sonata genre, or so we are told. Recounting the sessions at which the young Brahms played his music for the eager Robert Schumann, the older composer reports hearing “sonatas, veiled symphonies rather, songs, the poetry of which would be understood even without words...sonatas for violin and piano, string quartets, every work so different that it seemed to flow from its own individual source...”
Even before his encounter with Schumann in 1853, the young pianist had served as accompanist to the Hungarian violinist Ede Reményi; he had also made the acquaintance of the great Joseph Joachim, whose Hamburg performance of the Beethoven Violin Concerto had impressed Brahms five years earlier. Clearly Brahms knew how to write for the violin, but he waited to write a full-fledged sonata. He did make a one-movement contribution to the so-called F-A-E Sonata composed in 1853 for Joachim by Brahms, Schumann, and Albert Dietrich. That Scherzo, which was not published until 1906, offers a fascinating example of the aggressive, almost Beethoven-like style that dominates the earliest works by Brahms.
For guidance in the composition of his Violin Concerto – completed in 1878 and introduced on New Year’s Day of 1879 – Brahms turned to the great Joachim, and the result (although not universally acclaimed at the time) was soon accepted as perhaps the greatest work in the form since those by Beethoven and Mendelssohn. (Brahms, ever the self-critical composer, made revisions over the following six month-period before the score was published.) The Concerto (Op. 77) was followed, at last, by his Op. 78, the first of the three Violin Sonatas Brahms would write for Joachim.
Composed almost a decade later, in 1888, the Third Violin Sonata, Op. 108 in D minor, is the most serious of the three, not so surprising when we recall that the composer’s powerful First Piano Concerto was also set in D minor, the key of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Unlike its two companions, the last of the Violin Sonatas is structured in four movements, beginning with an urgent Allegro. As Orrin Howard succinctly describes it, “The dominant elements of the movement are very nearly all contained within the first four measures: three ideas in the violin – an ascending fourth, a falling eighth-note figure, and a long-held note followed by a quick note – and, the fourth, the piano’s accompanying line in staggered (thus restless) single notes an octave apart. It is these highly concentrated motifs, so mysterious in their first appearances, which are put through a huge variety of compositional and emotional transformations.” The concise Adagio that follows shares the same rapt quality that marked the slow movement of the D-minor Piano Concerto; this is a song that manages to express a great deal without any need for words. The third movement (Un poco presto e con sentimento) is an example of Brahms steadfastly refusing to write a real scherzo when an intermezzo will do. The middle section is more emphatic, but the requested sentiment soon returns us to a lyrical mood reminiscent of the earlier Violin Sonatas. The climax of this work, though, is clearly the finale. The stormy Presto agitato gallops relentlessly, occasionally yielding to reflective interludes offering welcome but only temporary contrast.
Dennis Bade is the Associate Director of Publications.