Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Sonatas for violin and piano
Johannes Brahms was born in Hamburg in 1833, the son of adouble-bass player and his much older wife, a seamstress His childhood wasspent in relative poverty, and his early studies in music, for which he showeda natural aptitude, developed his talent to such an extent that there was talkof his touring as a prodigy at the age of eleven. It was Eduard Marxsen whogave him a grounding in the technical basis of composition, while the boyhelped his family by playing the piano to entertain guests in summer innsoutside the city, a more respectable and better rewarded occupation than he waslater to imply.
In 1851 Brahms met the emigre Hungarian violinist Remenyi,who introduced him to Hungarian dance music that had a later influence on hiswork. Two years later he set out in his company on his first concert tour.
Their journey took them, on the recommendation of the Hungarian violinistJoachim, to Weimar, where Franz Liszt held court and might have been expectedto show particular favour to a fellow-countryman. Remenyi profited from thevisit, but Brahms, with a lack of tact that was later accentuated, failed toimpress the Master. Later in the year, however, he met the Schumanns, through Joachim'sagency. The meeting was a fruitful one.
In 1850 Schumann had taken up the offer of the positionof municipal director of music in Dtisseldorf, the first official appointmentof his career and the last.
Now in the music of Brahms he detected a promise of greatnessand published his views in the journal he had once edited, the Neue Zeitschrijtfur Musik, declaring Brahms the long-awaited successor to Beethoven. In thefollowing year Schumann, who had long suffered from intermittent periods ofintense depression, attempted suicide. His final years, until his death in 1856,were to be spent in au asylum, while Brahms rallied to the support ofSchumann's wife, the gifted pianist Clara Schumann, and her young family, remaininga firm friend until her death in 1896, shortly before his own in the followingyear.
Brahms had always hoped that sooner or later he would beable to return in triumph to a position of distinction in the musical life of Hamburg.
This ambition was never fulfilled. Instead he settled in Vienna, intermittentlyfrom 1863 and definitively in 1869, establishing himself there and seeming tomany to fulfil Schumann's early prophecy. In him his supporters, including,above all, the distinguished critic and writer Eduard Hanslick, saw a truesuccessor to Beethoven and a champion of music untrammeled by extra-musicalassociations, of "pure" music, as opposed to the "Music of theFuture" promoted by Wagner and Liszt, a path to which Joachim and Brahmsboth later publicly expressed their opposition.
Brahms made a significant contribution to chamber musicrepertoire. His first attempts were made in the early 1850s and are now lost,but in 1853 he wrote a movement for the composite violin sonata by Schumann andhis pupil Albert Oietrich intended for Joachim. It was not until 1879 that hecompleted, to his satisfaction, his first violin sonata, during a summerholiday at Portschach on the Worthersee. It had become customary for Brahms tospend his summers in the countryside, and to devote himself largely to composition.
For three summers, from 1977, he stayed at Portschach. In 1878 he completed hisViolin Concerto, in consultation with Joachim, and started work on the ViolinSonata in G major, Opus 78. The first movement, in which the piano, asalways in these sonatas, is at least an equal partner, allows the violin tointroduce the main theme, with its gentle lilt, over piano chords. A transitionsoon brings those cross-rhythms that are typical of the composer. The violinmoves to the second subject, joined by the piano, the first theme re-appearingwith a plucked violin accompaniment, a suggested repetition of the expositionthat in fact leads to a central development section. The recapitulation ends ina coda that recalls the principal elements of the main theme. The Adagio, openedby the piano, joined by the violin in the main theme, moves from E flat majorto the minor in a solemn memory of the rhythmic figure that had started thefirst movement. The first theme returns in more expansive form, followed by thesecond, now more gently optimistic, as it leads to the final return of the principaltheme. The last movement, with its immediate reference to the opening of thewhole work, brings recollection of the composer's setting of the nostalgic poemRegenlied (Rain Song) by Klaus Groth, and of the following setting, Nachklang(Reminiscence). There is a return to the theme of the Adagio, itselfa possible reference to Schumann's late Violin Concerto, now developedbefore the return of the original key and a conclusion that recalls what has passed.
Brahms' Violin Sonata No.2 in A major, Opus 100,was completed during the summer of 1886, while the composer was on holiday by Lake Thun, in Switzerland, and was performed in Vienna in December of the sameyear. There is a perceived connection with two songs written in the same summer,Wie Melodien (As melodies) and Immer leiser wird mein Schlummer
(Ever gentle is my sleep), poems by Klaus Groth and Hermann Lingg, the first inthe second subject of the first movement, and the second in the Finale.
Like its predecessor, the sonata is generally lyrical in mood. The firstsubject of the Allegro amabile, introduced by the piano, is taken up bythe violin and is contrasted with a second subject of greater intensity. Thesecond movement alternates between the serenity of the Andante and the Dminor Vivace that serves as a Scherzo, ever faster at each appearance.
The Finale is unusual in its relatively restrained speed. The richmelody of the opening gives way to an arpeggiated passage, a first episode thatleads back to the principal theme in a new guise. The following episode is moredramatic, while the main theme returns almost hesitantly, followed by elements ofthe first episode and a coda that uses the same melody.
The Sonata No.3 in D minor, Opus 108, followed in1888, again completed during a summer spent at Lake Thun, and was dedicated tothe pianist and conductor Hans von Btilow. The first movement opens with aviolin theme that is extended in a mood of intensity only suggested in thefirst bars. The piano introduces the F major second theme and this leads to acentral development, over a repeated pedal-point. The Adagio provides arich melodic outline for the violin, its D major replaced by F sharp minor forthe following scherzo movement, with its key lowered a semitone for acontrasting section The final Presto agitato provides a perfect balancewith the first movement, its passionate first theme contrasted with a moretranquil second, providing altogether a direct counterpart structurally andemotionally to the opening Allegro.