Brahms piano sonata no. 1, op. 1

performed by Krystian Zimerman

Welcome back after our first three days of no posts since July 6 (or something).
And who naturally follows the dear Mr. and Mrs. Schumann but their little protege of a composer, one Johannes Brahms? He’s no little composer. R. Schumann was born in 1810, C. Schumann in 1819, and Brahms in 1833, so he was significantly younger than either of them. That’s the only way in which he was little.
In any case, he’s also going to round our more-than-a-month-long “Early Piano Works of some of the Most Important Composers in Musical History” series, and we’ll end the whole thing with a bang.
I’d originally intended to give him the same treatment as the others: string together a handful of his earliest opus numbers before finishing with a concerto, but there were some problems.
You see… Three out of Brahms’ first five opus numbers are sonatas, no’s 1, 2, and 5. That’s a problem. Why? It seems perfectly great to include those sonatas in our series here; we covered three Beethoven sonatas back-to-back, did we not?
I thought about it, I really did. But the problem here (aside from me not having the time to listen to the pieces like I’d need to) is that they’re the only sonatas for piano that Brahms wrote. After those three Beethoven sonatas, we’ve still got another 29 to get to; but Brahms only wrote three, and they’re by no means early, dismiss-able works (not that Beethoven’s early sonatas are by any means), so I decided we’re going to set them aside and savor them for later.
In any case, today is our first Brahms sonata, his opus one. This was one of the pieces the young composer shared with the Schumann’s along with a letter from Joseph Joachim when he showed up on the Schumanns’ doorstep. Needless to say, both composer/pianists were impressed.
It’s appropriate here, perhaps, to take a moment to talk about expectations that some of society had for Brahms, and why. There’s that whole business everyone knows about with Brahms’ first symphony being called “Beethoven’s tenth” and the idea that he was the next to take over the musical scene, but why? It was, in part, due to the comments of the Schumanns about this young composer who showed up on their doorstep. I also find that rather Romantically hard to believe; I see a young, wild German teen with a satchel and cap of some kind and a pile of papers in his hand, letter from Joseph Joachim on top of a few of his early compositions, standing on a front step and knocking, promptly handing his packet of papers to whomever first opened the door, but it likely wasn’t so.
In any case, they made statements that the young man is “destined to give ideal expression to the times” (from an article entitled Neue Bahnen [New Paths] in one of Schumann’s articles), or Clara’s statement below about his first visit:

… [Brahms] is one of those who comes as if straight from God. – He played us sonatas, scherzos etc. of his own, all of them showing exuberant imagination, depth of feeling, and mastery of form … what he played to us is so masterly that one cannot but think that the good God sent him into the world ready-made. He has a great future before him, for he will first find the true field for his genius when he begins to write for the orchestra.

He stated that such praise form such revered people as the Schumanns “will arouse such extraordinary expectations by the public that I don’t know how I can begin to fulfill them…” All of these quotes come from this section of Brahms’ Wikipedia article. This statement does make
me feel a bit better about what I’ve always perceived as a certain arrogance (is that the right word?) associated with Brahms, but that the expectation of him being the next Beethoven may not have come from him as much as his teachers.
He’d done the same thing with the first two of his sonatas that many others had done with some of their first works. Although the second piano sonata had been composed earlier, he gave the more impressive work (to his estimation) the designation of op. 1. We won’t get around to the other sonatas in these few posts, so we shan’t compare.
For a seriously in-depth step-by-step analysis of this piece, check out Kelly Dean Hansen’s write-up of this piece, down to the second. It’s more than I’m capable of doing.

The first movement is dripping with overt romanticism, almost to a fault. While it seems there’s no modulation to the dominant key for the second subject, there are two distinct subjects that make up the exposition, and it is repeated. How traditional. 
There’s a youthful, unpolished sort of raw emotion to this movement (and the entire piece, as we shall see), quite unlike the understated subtlety in something like a few of the Schumann or Beethoven pieces we discussed earlier, although there is the obvious association to Beethoven’s Hammerklavier. It’s blatant, celebratory, bright C major unabashed German Romanticism, for better or for worse, with plenty of what the world would soon identify as Brahmsian virtuosity and color.  
In the development section, we reach Cm rather quickly, the minor of our home key. Something, for whatever reason in this sonata that stands out to me, perhaps from having a look at the score or for some innate quality in the piece, is that key changes and subjects are quite easy to identify, and it’s easy to hear not just the two major themes, but the development or progress throughout this work and where it’s headed. They don’t feel as abstract or hidden as in some other pieces. As big and bold and Romantic and thickly-chorded as it is, there is some odd sense of clarity to it that makes it pretty easy to follow. It’s a big, booming virtuosic sonata form, with the exposition and its repeat taking up a considerable part of the first movement. 
In stark contrast to the first movement (and all the others, really) is the slow second movement. It is amazing. It has all the somber, quiet, dark almost baroque delicacy that the first movement didn’t. It’s incredibly slow, almost painfully if you’re looking at the score, although even it has moments of motion. This movement was inspired by a German song that Brahms would later rework for female chorus, although this work would not get an opus number. The lyrics to said song can be found in the Wikipedia article for this sonata. It’s delicate and pained and gorgeous, and is perhaps the first time I’ve been revolted by a major key. Let me explain. The movement is in Cm, which isn’t too out of place after the first movement, but there is one defining, standout moment in the second movement that feels like someone’s opened the curtains too early, turned on all the lights in the room, exorcising the darkness that was so comfortable and cozy when you wanted to sleep in. That’s what it feels like; usually this is kind of the opposite way around: a movement is bright and cheery with a sudden modulation to a minor key that sounds grotesque or evil in comparison. But here… the brightness of C major is a cold shock, even without much change in the mood or tone of the music itself. It’s brilliant, but I loved the dark, somber nature of the opening. Really gorgeous.
The scherzo is mostly in E minor, with a C major trio. Again, typically repeated A section with a middle major-key section before the scherzo comes back to round the piece out. This is a good example of how a minor key doesn’t have to be ‘sad’ or ‘dark’ all the time. It is certainly obvious that it’s in a minor key, in contrast with the C major delicacy of the trio, but the Em key still manages to be light and playful, at most just mildly mischievous. It has much of the same pianistic vigor of the first movement, but we eventually weave our way into the C major trio, which is noticeably quieter, but echoes of the scherzo return toward the end and we do find ourselves back to the original scherzo theme, as we should, but not without a few instances of insinuated key changes and trickery, and the movement ends rather furiously.
The final movement is…. familiar. For a few reasons. For one, it’s in a very similar vein to the first and third movements as far as its expressiveness and style, but more directly, the content comes clearly from the material of the first movement. The fourth movement is a rondo,  the first theme of which begins in C major and also hints at the scherzo’s Em key before switching to E major and repeating itself.
The second theme is in the dominant key of G major, and you may think you’ve reached it because some of the bustle of the first theme slows down, but you know when it finally arrives. It’s slow and lyrical and a bit of a break on the ears. It moves briefly to its own dominant (of G major, which is D major) before returning to G.
This movement is in 9/8, but there are times where, with use of hemiola (two beats where there should be three), the 9/8 sections suggest 6/8 (although I can’t quite follow it). This is the kind of thing that shows up in some of Brahms’ symphonies that makes them tricky.
The A theme (in C) shows up again after the B theme (in G), and there is a second contrasting C theme (A minor), apparently based on a Scottish folk melody. The ultimate structure of this rondo is AABACA. It’s almost tiring in the relationships between the themes, the key changes (tons of them), and the general busy-ness of the whole movement, or really the whole piece.
I will say, although it isn’t one of my favorite piano works ever, it’s an ambitious opus one. My ultimate impression of it is of an incredibly precocious composer, one who has seen and heard the traditions of classical music and knows the nuts and bolts of how it should work rather intricately, but perhaps… is trying a bit too hard. This work is dense, heavy, ornate, and almost a bit overwhelming, to me. While it doesn’t feel like a half-hour-long work, the music is so… concentrated, so rich, that I almost want to give it all a bit more time to breathe and develop. That’s no criticism, but I feel like it’s definitely an early work from someone who needs, not more training, but more experience. It’s an impressive work nonetheless, and we have two more sonatas to check out from him eventually, not to mention an enormous body of chamber works.
For tomorrow, though, another solo piano work, his opus 4.
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