JOHANNES BRAHMS 1833 - 1897
The Violin Sonatas
SONATA N. 1 IN G MAJOR OP. 78
Brahms was a severe critic of his own work, often assailed with uncertainty and reluctant to publish works he considered immature or incomplete. With the exception of the Scherzo in C flat for the Sonata F.A.E. he made his first violin solo work known to the public only at the age of forty five with the publication of the Concerto in D major, op. 77. Cheered by the great success he had had in the summer of that year, 1878, he set to work composing the first of his three splendid violin sonatas. They are the only ones we know, as three previous similar sonatas were destroyed by the composer himself. Brahms wrote these three masterpieces during three happy and fruitful summer holidays which he spent away from the city, inspired by the mountain scenery. Sonatas op. 78, 100 and 108 are full of lyricism and a lied quality which rarely gives way to virtuosity (in particular in the first two), although they clearly reveal Brahms' mastery in shaping thematic material, while at the same time creating a harmonious balance between the violin and the piano. The composer felt supremely confident with the piano and the instrument often takes the lead in melodic construction. The Duo Accardo Canino takes its inspiration chiefly from the lied characteristic of the sonatas, with a vocal rather than and instrumental interpretation, sustaining Brahms' melodies with expressive phrasing, attention to detail and even at times introducing a theatrical quality. Sonata op. 78 is a work of extraordinary formal balance in which the sunny serenity dominant in the themes of the first movement alternates with a veiled melancholy evident especially in the second and third movements. It was completed in the spring of 1887 during a holiday in Pörtschach in Carinzia, taking the title of Regen-Sonate (Rain Sonata) because of the inclusion of a fragment of the theme from the Regenlied op. 59 composed in 1873 to the words of an elegiac poem by a Nordic writer. Although this motif is clearly cited only in the third movement, the opening theme of the Vivace ma non troppo  first movement anticipates it, with gentle anacrusic opening bars. This theme, strongly recurrent throughout the first movement, is mingled with a second melodic pattern built on the reiteration of two legato notes, giving a charming variation of rhythm against the main 6/4 measure. The first part is followed by a second melodic theme in which the violin develops an impassioned melody which soars towards a brief crescendo , and a third more intimate theme, where Brahms shows his mastery in developing one theme from another. A new, incompletely developed motif is introduced, which, with its lulling, repetitive cadence, introduces a graceful, more complete melodic idea which springs from a fragment of the previous theme. The first theme is picked up in a violin pizzicato and then the two motifs of the first thematic section are newly merged and developed. Towards the end of the movement, the third theme is finally recalled while Brahms prepares for the Recapitulation with the first theme again. The latter part differs from the Exposition in two ways: the passage from the first to the second theme directly to the secondary motif of the first theme, and the traditional transposition of tonality (a fourth above) of the second and third thematic group. The addition of a coda dominated by the two motifs of the first group completes the movement. The Adagio  is constructed on an ABA scheme. The piano introduces the main theme with peaceful right hand chords and left hand arpeggios. The violin enters with chromatic digressions and picks up the initial theme da capo. The central episode (B) substantially follows the scheme of the first (A): the new theme, a kind of funeral dirge, is wistfully underlined by piano chords over which the violin enters, first with a secondary idea, then with a recapitulation of the main theme. The two instruments then mingle, imitating each other and elaborating the main theme, thus bridging the gap to the reprise of the first episode where this time the theme is taken up by the violin. The long coda contains a reoccurrence of the themes of part B emphasised by an insistent pattering repetition of E flat, and concludes with the theme of part A. The rondo-sonata of the third movement, Allegro molto moderato  is held together by the melancholy G minor theme from Regenlied with a sustained gentle pattering on the piano which Brahms develops following two distinct harmonic lines separated by a brief connecting episode. The successive melody in the second thematic group is also in a minor key, but briefer and more affected in its phrasing. It is more repetitious and an apparently new motif is in fact a contraction of the initial theme and precedes a refrain of this theme. In the central section a new thematic element is introduced which, however, in the first two bars clearly imitates the opening motif of the Adagio . The episode is repeated but without the reference to the Adagio which is replaced by a different melody, almost as if the composer wished to make up for an unwelcome intrusion. The successive elaboration of a simple two-note melodic unit indirectly recalls the second theme, while the Regenlied theme appears only briefly during the transition to the Recapitulation. Here the lack of allusion to the first motif is partly compensated by some variations on the theme, while the harmonic connection is longer than that of the Exposition with the addition of a brief crescendo . The finale is like a little oasis of peace illuminated by the passage to the major mode. At this point there is a sweet and charming violin song, fruit of Brahms' fertile melodic inventiveness, which dies out gradually amid scattered echoes of the first theme.
SONATA N. 2 IN A MAJOR OP. 100
The Second Sonata was written during the summer of 1886 when Brahms was inspired by the magnificent mountain scenery which forms an idyllic backdrop to the village of Hofstetten and the nearby lake of Thun. This Sonata, perhaps even more than the First, takes its inspiration from vocal chamber music, and there are numerous thematic references to Brahms' lieder. The Sonata is dominated by a feeling of serenity and sunny cordiality and this is immediately clear in the opening Allegro amabile  in which a peaceful motif in 3/4 time is delineated by piano chords and brief melodic interventions by the violin. This arrangement is soon inverted when the two instruments exchange roles. A transitory episode made up of expressive skips of octaves leads to a second impassioned theme developed by the piano backed gently by the violin. After the violin's brief reintroduction of second theme in the closing bars of the Exposition, there is a hint of a new motif characterized by a triplet, which gains power through the movement. In the Development, the first theme is elaborated with repetition of both the second beat and the incipit of the theme, which is played alternately by the two instruments, and then reversed melodically. Brahms demonstrates his mastery of the technique of dealing with thematic material in his development of the theme with the triplet introduced at the close of the Exposition. An apparently insignificant fragment is thus elaborated and transformed into a complete theme in melancholy minor mode, and is later at the conclusion of the Development changed to major mode. Thus we reach the Recapitulation and find a modification of the transition episode to allow the second theme to be transposed to the principal key, and a long coda containing three sections: first static, then agitated, and finally a reference to the first theme. The second movement is characterized by the unusual alternation of two distinct structural sections. Firstly an Andante tranquillo  in 2/4 time based on a single theme played first by the violin, taken up by the piano and then by the violin again. The second part of the movement, a Vivace in 3/4 time, has a main theme played successively by piano and violin, a secondary theme following the same pattern, the recapitulation of the main theme (violin only) and finally a coda which completes the episode. In the second Exposition of the Andante tranquillo the theme is briefly transposed from F major to D major and then returns to the original key with an impassioned and joyful violin crescendo . The Vivace continues with a violin pizzicato and a staccato piano accompaniment to which rapid triplet arpeggios are added. The final recapitulation of the Andante sees the theme, after only two bars, returning from D major to F major while in seven bars there is a fleeting reference to the second part to conclude the movement. The final movement, Allegretto grazioso quasi Andante ( )  is a freely constructed rondo, and has a lyrical theme played by the rich lower registers of the violin. This merges with a secondary song-like motif on the piano. The theme develops with rapidly ascending arpeggios on the piano which accompany the violin's fluid melody, while a gentle mingling of the two instruments anticipates the theme's refrain. The second episode contains an expansion of parts of the theme, followed by a graceful piano staccato accompanying the violin. A variation on the first episode is followed by another refrain of the theme and the coda completes the sonata.
SONATA N. 3 IN D MINOR OP. 108
The last of the three Sonatas , op. 108 , was also inspired by the scenery around Lake Thun, during Brahms' summer holidays. The period of composition was much longer however, and took place in three phases, over the summers of 1886, 1887 and 1888. It was dedicated to his friend, advocate and associate, Hans von Bülow, with whom Brahms was only just reconciled after some two years of misunderstanding. It differs from the previous sonatas, not only because it is divided into four movements, but also for its decidedly exuberant and fervent nature. It often approaches virtuosity, especially in the piano parts, and thus was assured great popularity in concert halls as well as public acclaim. While the lyrical melody of the first theme of the Allegro , unfolds with a sotto voce ma espressivo rich in pathos, brief triad chords effectively slow down the agitated rhythm almost like deep breaths. A sustained, impetuous episode opens with an imitation of the first motif and forms a bridge to the romantic melody of the second theme, successively played by piano and violin and followed by a brief coda which completes the Exposition. An unusual feature is the organ-like flavour of the Development section: over a lengthy dominant pedal point, the quaver sequence of the two instruments intertwine. The violin then enters with contrasting melodic fragments which it expands to conclude, on the same pedal, with a descending sixth scale. The Recapitulation is thus reached; the first thematic group strengthens the melody and leads to the Development with a rhythmic continuity. The connecting episode is varied to allow a second theme in D major (the same as the dominant major key). The movement concludes with a double echo: the first in the coda of the Exposition, where a crescendo leads to a new and more energetic Recapitulation of the first theme, the second in the musical fabric of the Development reintroduced over a tonic pedal, which in the closing bars is interrupted, giving way to the last echoes of the first theme, and reaching the final cadenza. The second movement of the sonata is an Adagio  in 3/8 time whose uncomplicated structure pivots around an emotional, dramatic violin melody, followed by a sustained cadenza section. This sequence is repeated with the theme beginning an octave higher, sustained by a livelier accompaniment in thirds, and a strengthening of the cadenza section, while the coda contains fleeting glimpses of the theme and concludes the movement. In the third movement Un poco presto con sentimento , the main theme played by the piano is particularly joyful and charming because of the staccato phrasing and the gentle flow of harmony whose cadenza section is crossed over like a shiver by a flittering, descending arpeggio. This motif is followed by a secondary theme played by both instruments and then the reintroduction of the theme by the violin. The next episode, twice repeated with variations, is made up of rhythmic arpeggios followed by a rapid progression of chords and the echo of the theme on the piano, while a hint at the theme in major mode is like an unexpected ray of light which ushers in the theme with the variant of a violin pizzicato. The movement concludes with a further elaboration of the theme with violin chords. The last movement, Presto agitato , is divided into three thematic groups. The first is characterized by a rapid alternation between the two instruments in a vigorous melody in 6/8 time which gradually becomes less frenetic in the following episode. A second song-like theme is taken up by the piano and then repeated by the violin, while the third thematic group has a resolute violin melody introduced by a brief octave arpeggio on the piano. After an intense crescendo it reunites through octave arpeggios with the first theme. The Development opens with a chordal accompaniment over which unfolds a new thematic element taken from the incipit of the first theme. This culminates in a crescendo leading to a more energetic section. A dominant pedal containing secondary elements of the first theme leads to an unusual Recapitulation which skips the first theme and passes directly to the second and third themes. The lack of initial theme is compensated for by its successive reintroduction to the third theme (already found in the Exposition) and by references to it in the coda.
SCHERZO IN C MINOR FOR SONATA F.A.E.
Brahms permitted few of his works to reach posterity, and among these was a particular sonata, written in association with Albert Dietrich and Robert Schumann who composed three of the four movements, leaving Brahms to compose the Scherzo . It is Sonata F.A.E. of 1853, written in only ten days with the idea of giving a surprise gift to their mutual friend Joseph Joachim, a highly talented young violinist, who would later have a significant role in the publication and diffusion of Brahms' violin works.
Incidentally, the title F.A.E. is an acronym of the motto of these works: Frei Aber Einsam (free but alone). Although the Scherzo reveals the typical immaturity and ingenuousness of youth (Brahms was only twenty at the time), the Scherzo is exuberant and passionate with some masterly touches and a freshness due to freedom from excessive concern with rules of composition and stylistic rigour. The main theme of the Scherzo  is a free fantasy, constructed on the four repeated notes of the opening of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony , whose intense pulsing rhythm comes mainly from the lower notes of the piano. After the refrain of the first part, Brahms inserts a sparkling folk dance in 6/8 time in two different major keys. The incipit of the second theme are developed into a modulating episode which connects to the recapitulation of the first theme, reintroduced without refrain and with some harmonic variations. The Trio (central episode of the movement in 2/4 time) is composed firstly of an expressive, charming melody, and secondly of a harmonious, more flowing melody with clear references to the two opening themes leading to a full recapitulation of the entire Scherzo. The coda with its sustained chords interrupts the pulsing rhythm of the piano and completes the movement in a solemn mood.
Carlo Franceschi De Marchi (from La Guida di Amadeus, Cd AM 102-2)
English translation: Jane Elizabeth Read