Brahms Cello Sonata No. 1 in E minor, op. 38

performed by Mstislav Rostropovich and Rudolf Serkin, or below with Jacqueline du Pré and Barenboim

(The work is officially titled ‘Sonate für Klavier und Violoncello‘; we will discuss this shortly.)

(cover image by Miguel Mateo)

Brahms completed his first sonata for cello in 1865, after a few years of (on-and-off?) composition. It was his first sonata that wasn’t for piano only (op. 34b is a version of the quintet, but for two pianos). The cello sonata was to be “a homage to J. S. Bach”, with themes from the first movement based on sections of Bach’s The Art of Fugue. This perhaps should not come as a surprise. As we shall see in a post later this week, Brahms enjoyed picking out an idea and sticking with it throughout a work.

The sonata was dedicated to Josef Gänsbacher, “a singing professor and amateur cellist.” During a performance of the work, with the composer at the piano, Gänsbacher famously complained that he could hardly hear himself play. Ever the charming one, Brahms retorted, “Lucky for you, too,” and did nothing to accommodate his partner.

In fact, on the score, Brahms indicates that the piano “should be a partner – often a leading, often a watchful and considerate partner – but it should under no circumstances assume a purely accompanying role.” This rearrangement of the ordering of the players in the title would also later be used in his second violin sonata “for piano and violin,” perhaps elsewhere as well.

The work is in three movements, and lasts for slightly under a half hour, as follows:

  1. Allegro non troppo, in E minor, 4/4
  2. Allegretto quasi Menuetto, in A minor, in 3/4, with a trio in F-sharp minor.
  3. Allegro, in E minor, 4/4

We’ll turn to Kelly Dean Hansen for some more specific details about the work, as he has written outstandingly detailed, very informative guides to Brahms’ works that are more insightful and detailed than anything I’ve ever written. If you’re a lover of Brahms, you should go check out Hansen’s website. It’s breathtakingly text-heavy but also wildly detailed, and if you’re really interested in that sort of thing, there’s plenty to sink your teeth into. It essentially presents a bar-for-bar play-by-play of the piece, a commentary about what the themes are, where they (re)appear and in what forms, what refers to what in what way, etc., and if you’ve enjoyed Brahms in the past but never really thought about any of that, pick a favorite piece of yours and see if he has a listening guide. It’s amazing to see what detail is there to enjoy.

Here’s his page for the op. 38 cello sonata.

Brahms…

I feel like in some ways he is the musician’s composer, that to the average person, he writes good music, but to the performer, especially of his chamber work, once you get inside it, elbow deep in a quartet or trio or sonata like this, you see the intricacies of his genius. I wouldn’t know, though; I can only listen repeatedly and read about it.

People also have the impression of Brahms as a strict man, in both personality and aesthetic. All of that being said, though, I think this work in particular may be especially amenable to a simple approach. As long as you’re a somewhat active listener, willing to engage, Brahms tells you everything you need to know in pretty clear terms.

For example, take the beginning 10 seconds or so of this first movement, the first phrase by the piano, in its handsome low register. Just listen to that first phrase again and again and again, three or four times, to get it in your ear, and then listen to the piece. With or without the score, you can read Hansen’s play-by-play and hear each of the events he lists.

For example, after the cello carves out that initial shape in the low register, it answers itself, in a kind of second part, in a higher voice. What Hansen refers to as Theme 1, part 3 is when the piano takes up that opening figure the cello introduced. This is all contained within the first part of our sonata form, as we’re revolving around that first theme, in E minor, but things get interesting. It might feel a bit ambiguous as the piano part undulates and the cello wanders a bit, but we’re working our way around, through a few notes, G and C, to the key of the second theme, in B minor. Can you hear when it appears?

It feels like an arrival, like landing on our feet, or things falling into place, because it’s an unmistakable melody. Things are no longer drifting and unsettled, but now working unmistakably toward something. Enjoy this melody, what Hansen refers to as “a canon between the cello and the piano right hand,” and after this more strict formation, the cello eventually “breaks free with a more passionate melody.” These are the nuts and bolts of our sonata form, and if you didn’t quite get it at the first pass, don’t worry, because when this theme finishes, we have a repeat, starting back at the beginning again.

That’s what an exposition repeat is for, to help the listener get all this in mind, and then go with it from there. Once you know what to listen for in that second theme, for example, seeing how Brahms sets it up and hearing its arrival is exhilarating. I’ll say not much more about this first movement except to try to listen for things from the exposition and see how they’re used to complete this sonata form movement. It’s just exquisite.

This movement is substantial to say the least, taking up more than half of the performance time of the entire sonata. What remains, in comparison, is quite brief. The second movement is marked “Allegretto quasi menuetto.”

It is indeed minuet-like, but while it’s not a thunderous, menacing scherzo, it’s a captivating movement, making me wonder why it took Brahms until his fourth symphony to write a proper scherzo. Granted, he had scherzos that showed up elsewhere, but the lack of one in his first three symphonies certainly isn’t to say he couldn’t write one. The trio here is almost reminiscent of a Chopin-esque nocturne, freely melodic and Romantic, but not flamboyant. The minuet returns to close out the movement.

The opening of the finale is perhaps the most Bach-like thing we’ve heard so far, and this movement is indeed a “Combination of Fugue with Sonata form,” as Hansen writes. There are two subject groups, like we had in the first movement. One is in E minor, the second in G major. The music is rigorously contrapuntal, the kind of thing people think of when they think of Bach.

Everything’s more compact here, though. There’s no repeat of the exposition, and the development is much shorter. The recapitulation is also inverted, beginning with the second subject group then the first, and there’s also a coda to enjoy.

I won’t discuss this movement in the kind of detail I did the first, because I really think the first is an outstanding example of sonata form in all its perfect, effective, wonderful glory. This is a little denser, compacting a lot of musical movement and fugue and all the rest into a similar structure, and while the coda is exciting and gives us a breathtaking final few gestures, the finale seems to gear toward musical craft and showmanship rather than flashy flamboyant fireworks.

What a piece, though, huh? I think this first movement is just an outstanding representation of the effectiveness, the real pricelessness of the concept of sonata form. Needless to say, it especially shines in the hands of someone who makes such wonderful use of it, but when it comes down to it, there’s nothing more you need to do to appreciate (most) music than just listen. Maybe only once, maybe a few times, maybe with a few hints along the way, but if you’re a willing participant, Brahms is more than eager to show you the way, and what a beautiful way it is.

We’ll be seeing a bit more of him this week, so stay tuned for that and thank you for reading.

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