Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 1, in G Major, Op. 78 . . .Johannes Brahms

(Born May 7, 1833, in Hamburg; died April 3, 1897, in Vienna)

In his first twenty years, Johannes Brahms made an astonishing leap, from a miserable childhood in the downtrodden harbor area of Hamburg to an eminent position as a distinguished young composer.  He began his career as a musician at the age of twelve by giving piano lessons for pennies, and at thirteen, he was playing in harbor-side sailors’ bars.  By the age of sixteen, however, he had progressed to playing Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata and one of his own compositions in a public concert.  In April 1853, just before his 20th birthday, he set out from Hamburg on a modest concert tour, traveling mostly on foot.  In Hanover, he called on the violinist Joseph Joachim, who at twenty-two had just become the head of the royal court orchestra there.  Brahms so impressed Joachim that he gave him a letter of introduction to Liszt in Weimar and sent him to see Schumann in Düsseldorf.  When Schumann, who was then Germany’s leading composer, and his wife, Clara, one of Europe’s greatest pianists heard Brahms play, they took him into their home.

Although this sonata purports to be Brahms’s Violin Sonata No. 1, according to the reflections of a student of Brahms, Brahms had presumably discarded five violin sonatas that he had composed before he wrote this one, the first that he thought good enough to preserve and present to the world.  He wrote this work during the summers of 1878 and 1879, when he had already become a mature artist.  It was his only piece of chamber music from the productive period in which he composed his Symphony No. 2, the Academic Festival and Tragic Overtures, the Violin Concerto and Piano Concerto No. 2.

This sonata, like his Violin Concerto, Op. 77, owes a great deal to Joachim and to Clara Schumann, who by then was a widow.  Clara was a distinguished pianist and composer in her own right.  When Brahms sent Clara a manuscript copy of this new work, she wrote back, “I must send you a line to tell you how excited I am about your Sonata.  It came today.  Of course I played it through at once, and at the end could not help bursting into tears of joy.”  Ten years later, when Clara was seventy years old and in failing health, she still loved the sonata and treasured the friendship of both Joachim and Brahms.  From her house in Frankfurt she wrote a touching letter to Brahms in which she said, “Joachim was here on Robert’s eightieth birthday and we had a lot of music.  We played the [Op. 78] Sonata again and I reveled in it.  I wish that the last movement could accompany me in my journey from here to the next world.”

This sonata is one of the most lyrical compositions among all of Brahms’s instrumental works.  The violin always has the leading voice, and the piano writing is always so clear and transparent that an imbalance never exists between the two instruments.  There are only three movements, not the usual four frequently considered traditional for a sonata; Brahms wrote to his publisher, clearly in jest, that since he came up one movement short, he would therefore accept 25% less than his usual fee for this work.

As in many of Brahms’ compositions, the movements are intimately interrelated.  A three-note motto figure is common to all three movements.  A mood of gentle nostalgia permeates the first movement, Vivace ma non troppo, and sets the tone and character for the entire sonata.  Brahms here works much like Beethoven had before him: he introduces a germ out of which the themes for the whole movement eventually evolve and grow.  The second movement is a solemn and dramatic Adagio. The third, a rondo, Allegro molto moderato, contains an episode in which Brahms brings back the lovely slow movement theme.  The principal melodic material of this movement, however, comes from a related pair of his songs, “Regenlied”  (“Rain Song”) and “Nachklang” (“Reminiscence”), Op. 59, Nos. 3 and 4.