Caspar David Friedrich: "Frau vor die untergehende Sonne"


Johannes Brahms (1833–1897)

Sonata for Cello and Piano in E minor, op 38   Allegretto quasi  Menuetto

During the troubled months leading up to Schumann’s death, the 21-year-old Brahms lived in the Schumann household,  looking after their six children during Clara’s frequent concert tours and growing emotionally closer to  Clara herself.  It was, no doubt a stressful time for everyone so it comes as no surprise that Brahms was also battling persistent writer‘s block caused by what he perceived to be a plateau in his creativity. With the exception of the piano ballades and the Variations on a Theme of Robert Schumann, he published nothing between 1856 and 1862. The Cello Sonata op 38 was the first of seven duo sonatas to survive his penchant for ruthless self-censorship long enough to reach publication. At the time here were several simultaneous several projects on the go, most notably the String Quintet in F minor and some symphonic sketches. By autumn, he had finished three movements of the quintet and sent Clara the first movement of the First Symphony in C minor that would not be completed for another twelve years.   His attention was also focused on applying to be the successor for conductor’s post  at the Hamburg Philharmonic.  He then left Hamburg for a long-anticipated first visit to Vienna, expecting to return in a matter of months to take up his new post but after receiving the news that his hopes would not be realized he never  returned to Hamburg to live, remaining in Vienna for the rest of his life.

The big question facing composers of the mid 18oo’s was just how to expand upon the musical legacy of Beethoven, and inevitably, opposing schools of thought developed.  On one side were the Absolutists, championed by Robert and Clara Schumann, looking back to Schubert, Beethoven, Mozart and even Bach for the classic structure of musical forms – fugue, theme and variations, and Viennese sonata-allegro – that would be the foundation of their modern compositions.  On the other were Liszt and Wagner, the figureheads of the New German School, taking Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony and Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique as their models and forming through-composed music around philosophical or poetic programs, in a quest to unify all aspects of artistic expression – literature, music, visual art, theater – into a single organism Wagner referred to this ideal as Gesamtkunstwerk, or‘total work of art’.


The sonata is actually entitled “Sonate für Klavier und Violoncello” (for Piano and Cello), like Beethoven before him, Brahms was giving a new role to the two instruments, with more dialogue of shared thematic material.  In a traditional sonata, the first movement in sonata-allegro form is followed by a slow movement, most often an adagio.  Brahms’ notes indicate that the E-minor sonata originally contained four movements, three written in 1862 and the fourth – the fugal finale – in 1865, but the published work contains only three.  By excluding the Adagio movement from Op. 38, Brahms breaks with the Classical model while simultaneously turning to an even earlier influence: the Baroque minuet-trio structure that so often appeared in the works of Mozart and Schubert, with whose music Brahms was somewhat obsessed at this period.   Throughout the sonata there are recurring motifs; the interval of the 2nd (neighbouring notes) which makes the melodic lines quite intense, and the flattened minor 6th that makes its first appearance in the second bar of the first movement.  The opening of the Allegretto draws from both of these ideas with a descending stepwise version from the expressive minor sixth. The minuet is lilting and dancelike, whereas the trio is legato and the cello pitched in its high-middle ‘singing’ range and doubled by slightly distorted Hungarian “cimbalom “ style arpeggiated figure in the piano,that provides extra movement and enriches the harmonic structure with its extended chromaticism .  The kingdom of Hungary was ruled from the Hungarian court chancelry in Vienna and had a substantial role within the Austrian Empire at the time. Small wonder that their unique musical style and instrumentation had a profound influence on the musical world.

Sarah Acres

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Sarah Acres

Sarah Acres