About the Composer
Throughout his life, Brahms struggled to reconcile the essentially percussive nature of the piano with the sustained, singing voices of the violin, viola, and cello. The contrast in sound and character is central to many of his greatest chamber works, from the first version of the B-Major Piano Trio, completed in 1854, to the two sonatas for clarinet (or viola) and piano of 1894. Late in life, having written a brace of masterpieces for keyboard and strings in various combinations, Brahms came to believe that the clarinet, with its unique ability to blend and stand out in mixed company, was "much more adapted to the piano than string instruments." This conviction bore fruit in the 1890s in two of Brahms's crowning achievements: the Clarinet Trio and Clarinet Quintet.
The difficulties Brahms encountered in integrating piano and strings were compounded by his unsparing self-criticism. (By his own tally, he wrote and destroyed no fewer than 20 string quartets before he could bring himself to publish his first two works in the genre in 1873.) The B-Major Trio, conceived by a precocious 20-year-old, underwent a comprehensive overhaul some 35 years later. Another "early" masterpiece, the F-Minor Piano Quintet, started life as a string quintet, which Brahms transformed into a sonata for two pianos. Only after Clara Schumann observed that the music was "so full of ideas" that a full orchestra was needed to do it justice, did he recast it as a piano quintet. In this form, musicologist Donald Francis Tovey observed, "the rhythmic incisiveness of the piano is happily combined with the singing powers of the bowed instruments."
Yet Brahms never shed his ambivalence and diffidence when it came to composing music for strings. As a mature composer, when he conceived the idea of writing a double concerto for violin and cello, he confided to Clara that he ought to have deferred to someone who possessed a deeper knowledge of the two instruments than he did. "It is a very different matter writing for instruments whose nature and sound one only has a chance acquaintance with … from writing for an instrument that one knows as thoroughly as I know the piano."
Cello Sonata No. 1 in E Minor, Op. 38
About the Work
The first of Brahms's published duo sonatas, the Cello Sonata in E Minor dates from the early 1860s. It was a period of upheaval in the composer's life—disappointed in his hope of winning a major conducting post in his native Hamburg, he decided to try his luck in Vienna—but also of growing recognition: In the spring of 1862, critic Adolf Schubring hailed the 29-year-old Brahms as a worthy successor to Bach, Beethoven, and Schubert. In Vienna, Brahms told Schubring, he revered "the sacred memory of the great musicians of whose lives and work we are daily reminded. In the case of Schubert especially, one has the impression of his still being alive. Again and again one comes across new works, the existence of which was unknown and which are so untouched that one can scrape the very writing-sand off them."
In highlighting the cello's lower register, the E-Minor Sonata evokes the burnished, baritonal sound world of Schubert's great C-Major String Quintet (scored for two cellos). Fittingly, the sonata is dedicated to Joseph Gänsbacher, an Austrian voice teacher and cellist who was coeditor of Schubert's collected works. In the summer of 1862, when he wrote the first two movements of the Cello Sonata, Brahms was working on his own double-cello quintet (destined to be reincarnated as the Piano Quintet in F Minor). Both works display the combination of lyricism and drama to which Schubring alluded when he wrote that Brahms "understands how to be Classic and Romantic, ideal and real—and after all, I believe he is appointed to blend both these eternal oppositions in art."
A Closer Listen
The E-Minor Sonata is cast in three movements, all in quick tempos, rather than the customary four. (Brahms composed a slow movement in 1862, but set it aside on the advice of friends; he later recycled it in his Cello Sonata No. 2 in F Major.) The opening Allegro non troppo is built around a warmly urgent eight-bar theme that surges from the depths of the cello's C string against a simple, off-beat accompaniment. The piano part, spare-textured and unassertive at first, soars to a massive climax as the cello's music becomes increasingly impassioned. But classical restraint soon reasserts itself and the movement's feverish energy subsides in a luminous E-major coda.
The Allegretto quasi menuetto is an oasis of calm between the turbulence of the outer movements. The piano and cello dance a delicate triple-time minuet, circling around each other in playful canonic imitation; its classical poise contrasts with the flowing romantic lines of the middle trio section. Brahms, a diligent student of Baroque counterpoint, appended the driving, fugal-style Allegro to the first two movements in 1865. The subject announces itself with a dramatic downward leap of an octave, then scurries along in a typically Brahmsian blend of duple and triple meters. The balance between the two instruments is notoriously problematic. One cellist complained to Brahms that he couldn't make himself heard over the piano in the finale. "You're lucky," the tart-tongued composer is said to have replied.
Violin Sonata No. 1 in G Major, Op. 78 (transcribed to D Major for cello by Paul Klengel)
About the Work
Not content with Brahms's two published sonatas for cello and piano, cellists have appropriated a third: the D-Major Sonata is a transcription of Brahms's Violin Sonata No. 1 in G Major. Both it and Brahms's Violin Concerto had their genesis in the summer of 1878. The concerto came to fruition that fall, with Brahms, spurred by the impending deadline of a New Year's Day premiere, frantically revising it up to the last minute. Even as he continued to fine-tune the concerto in the spring of 1879, he took up the sonata again and polished it off that June. Not surprisingly, the two works have much in common, sharing a mood of tender and slightly bittersweet lyricism. The sonata's third movement harks back to Brahms's "Regenlied" ("Rain Song") of 1873, in which a gentle summer shower reawakens dreams of childhood. He composed the central Adagio in memory of Clara Schumann's favorite son, Felix, who had died of tuberculosis earlier that year.
A Closer Listen
The Vivace ma non troppo features one of Brahms's loveliest themes: a wistful melody that glides down an octave and then rebounds, as the cello weaves wispy tendrils around the piano's slow-moving chords. The lilting dotted figure, long-short, that we hear in the opening bars recurs throughout the sonata as a unifying motif, its character now relaxed and hesitant, now strong and surging. Shifting patterns of duple and triple meters—one of Brahms's hallmarks—impart a restless vitality to the music. The Adagio is a broad, majestic essay in B-flat major with a darkly urgent, sharply articulated midsection. In the Allegro molto moderato, the cello takes its cue from the tune of Brahms's song, while the piano mimics the dancing patter of raindrops. Amid echoes of the first two movements, the finale gradually wends its way back to the home key, and the sonata ends, as it began, with a tender sigh.
Cello Sonata No. 2 in F Major, Op. 99
About the Work
In 1886, Brahms spent the first of three consecutive summer holidays at a rented villa nestled in the Swiss Alps near Thun. In that idyllic mountain retreat—his creative juices stimulated by vigorous hikes, convivial company, voracious reading, and a copious supply of cigars and strong coffee—he produced no fewer than four chamber-music masterpieces: the Second and Third violin sonatas, the Third Piano Trio, and the Cello Sonata No. 2 in F Major. The last was dedicated to Robert Hausmann, cellist of the celebrated string quartet headed by Brahms's estranged friend Joseph Joachim. The composer and violinist would be reconciled a year later, when Brahms wrote his Double Concerto in A Minor for Joachim and Hausmann.
A Closer Listen
The F-Major Sonata opens with a heraldic two-note motto in the cello, characterized by its jagged rhythm and interval of a rising fourth (C to F). It and the piano's nervously roiling tremolos resonate throughout the Allegro vivace, generating much of its atmosphere and thematic material. After straying down various tonal byways, the music emphatically circles home to F major for the recapitulation section, a highly compressed synopsis of the entire movement. Next comes the achingly beautiful Adagio affettuoso in F-sharp major that Brahms originally wrote for the First Cello Sonata and happily retrieved from the cutting-room floor. The turbulent Allegro passionato in F minor, with a contrasting middle section in F major, is notable for its restlessly shifting harmonies and rhythms; listen for Brahms's trademark overlay of triple and duple meters. The sonata culminates in an exuberant Allegro molto, which blends limpid lyricism with percussive brilliance and striking pizzicato effects in the cello part.