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

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

The musical manner that Brahms adopted as a young man and the extraordinary skills that he showed when he was only twenty years old led Robert Schumann to proclaim him, in 1853, “a musician chosen to give ideal expression to his time, a young man over whose cradle Graces and Heroes have stood watch.” Brahms’s music was always full of noble melody, rich texture, rhythmic freedom, and gracious statements in large forms beautifully written for the instruments he chose for a particular work. His music, of course, matured, but certain recognizable features in his work were evident early on and persisted throughout his development. He expressed different sentiments at different times, but even when he was yet a young composer, he had already found his own eloquent language, one that he would use consistently and well throughout his life.

Schumann’s pronouncement mentioned that Brahms had already written violin sonatas, and years later a pupil said that he had discarded five of them before composing this one, the first that he thought good enough to preserve and present to the world. He wrote it during the summers of 1878 and 1879. It was his only piece of chamber music from a productive period in which he composed his Second Symphony, the Academic Festival and Tragic Overtures, the Violin Concerto and the Second Piano Concerto.

The sonata, like the Violin Concerto, Op. 77, owes a great deal to the violinist Joseph Joachim, who was one of the greatest musicians of the time and a close friend of the composer. As young men, both had been disciples of Robert Schumann, and for years after his death, they remained close to his widow, Clara, a distinguished pianist and composer in her own right. When Brahms sent her 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 she was seventy years old and in failing health, she still loved the sonata and treasured the friendship of these two gifted men. 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 is always the leading voice, and the piano writing is always so clear and transparent that there is never an imbalance between the two instruments. There are only three movements, not four, and Brahms wrote to his publisher, no doubt in jest, that he would, therefore, accept 25% less than his usual fee for a sonata.

As in many of his works of the time, the movements are intimately interrelated. There is a three-note motto-figure and other music that moves among them. The mood of gentle nostalgia that permeates the first movement, Vivace ma non troppo, continues and characterizes the entire sonata. The second movement is a solemn and dramatic Adagio, and the third, is a rondo, Allegro molto moderato, with an episode in which Brahms brings back the 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. The text from which these songs are drawn is by Klaus Groth (1819-1899): “Pour rain, pour down, and recall to me the dreams I dreamt in childhood, my old songs that we sang indoors when we heard the raindrops outside. Raindrops are falling from the trees onto the green grass. Tears from my sad eyes are wetting my cheeks.”

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