Brahms Violin Sonata No. 1 in G, Op. 78, ‘Regensonate’

performed by Pinchas Zukerman & Daniel Barenboim

(cover image by Ian Baldwin)

Maybe I shouldn’t be discussing the first sonata before I address the violin concerto. The op. 78 sonata is only Brahms’ second work for the violin as a solo instrument, after the op. 77 concerto that directly precedes it. Two more sonatas were to come nearly a decade later. Joachim is pretty much inextricably linked in history with Brahms and the Schumann family, but it seems, despite his work with Brahms on the violin concerto, that this violin sonata was simply presented to him in completed form while the concerto was still being completed, according to Kelly Dean Hansen.

Despite the association with Joachim, he did not perform the premiere. Rather, it was given “on 8 November 1879 in Bonn, by the husband and wife Robert Heckmann (violin) and Marie Heckmann-Hertig (piano),” says Wikipedia.

As we did earlier in the week with the cello sonata, we’ll again be referring to Hansen’s analysis of this work. If you haven’t seen what he does with/to Brahms’ compositions, you should go check it out, at least for this article.

But that’s really outside the scope of what I have the time or ability to do, especially considering that it’s already been done so well.

The work is in three movements, and lasts about a half hour or so. Despite the moniker ‘rain sonata’ (which we shall discuss shortly), Hansen describes the work overall as “a sunny, radiant work that has a relaxed character throughout.” The first movement is in sonata form, “a broad 6/4 meter with much potential for rhythmic games such as cross groupings,” says Hansen. Indeed, the meter gives lots of room for interesting groupings and phrasings that you may not notice unless you have a look at the score (included in the above video). What you can notice just from listening is that broadness, a sense of lyricism, but not in the way that I so overuse that word. I can’t remember where I just read this, but someone, in an article I was just reading, mentioned the sonata as an extension of the violin concerto, and how Brahms’ goal was above all else to make the violin sing. It’s not a cheap thrill kind of pretty, but carries with it a sentimentality and sense of depth, clearly evident from the opening bars.

You could easily listen to this work and appreciate its beauty and expressiveness without score reading or analysis, but there were a few things that did interest me. For one, a little out of keeping with tradition, Brahms doesn’t repeat the exposition. But that’s still more technical.

The work has a maturity about it, at least not right now any of the wildness or fire that some of his youthful compositions had. What I appreciate most about this movement, and the work as a whole, is as if it’s a meditation on a single idea. That ‘rain sonata’ subtitle comes from the fact that, as Wiki says,

Each of the three movements of this sonata shares common motivic ideas or thematic materials from the head-motif of Brahms’s two songs “Regenlied” and “Nachklang”, Op. 59…

There’s no need to be familiar with that or connect this work to its source material, but even a few of the basic phrases and motifs in the first movement appear and reappear in the development, recapitulation, and coda, as one would expect, but it exemplifies what is so masterful about Brahms’ works, his outstanding economy of material, from which he can derive such splendidly moving, exquisite music. This first movement alone makes that indisputably clear.

That’s not to say it’s all quiet and dreamlike, no; it has its climax(es?), and that’s something else to look for before the recapitulation comes through, but it leads to the second movement, which also begins with piano, marked forte, in 2/4. The violin enters much more timidly. The movement is in ternary form with a significant coda. This first passage builds from the piano’s entry, with the violin gaining a foothold before it drops out, the piano takes over and we find ourselves in an ominous E minor. Hansen says it’s this powerful, memorable dotted rhythm that the piano introduced, later picked up by violin, that comes from the Regenlied of op. 59. This movement is certainly more melancholy, more “rainy” than the first.

If you’re at all like me, with a score sitting in front of you, iTunes on your screen (or iPhone), and maybe program notes, you’re following along, looking at how far along in the movement you are, as a progress bar of sorts. This is a ternary form movement, meaning three parts, ABA. We heard that, the warm, more sentimental melody from the beginning, contrasted with the darker, more ominous central passage, and you can hear when E major returns and the sky clears, but if you’re looking at that progress bar, there’s at least a quarter of the playing time left in this movement. It’s a big coda.

When does the coda begin? Remember the ominous, handsome dotted-note gesture that was in E minor earlier, the one that marked the B part of the ternary form? Well that figure is back, but not in the minor key. We stay in E major, so there’s not that effect of dark clouds rolling in, at least not at first. I quote Hansen directly:

The ominous dotted rhythm in the piano that began that section emerges out of A’ in the same way as it had before… with the major difference that it does not shift instantly to the minor key.  The low bass octaves remain in pure E-flat major, but the supporting chords introduce the chromatic note D-flat, which creates the necessary tension.

Different, but similar, and still effective, but in a new way. Oh, Brahms.

The finale is a rondo in G major/minor. The movement begins immediately with the A theme, the ‘focus’, you could say, of the piece. Unlike a sonata form movement, this theme does battle with two other themes in the movement, but there’s no development section like you’d have in a sonata form movement. Check out Hansen’s play-by-play for the nitty-gritty details, but you should instantly recognize the opening phrase from the violin as familiar. It’s that dotted figure that began the first movement and featured in the second. It’s changed a bit (faster here than elsewhere), but it should be fresh in your memory. This is what I love about Brahms. He holds your hand through his pieces if you let him.

This movement is clearly at a faster pace and slightly more ‘nervous’ in a way than any of the others, but it comes from the same place. This A theme is kind of made up of two parts, like a question and an answer. If you’re looking at the score (or reading Hansen’s notes) it’s easy to see, and he remarks that the B theme makes its entrance at bar 27. You’ll notice it’s made of dotted quarter notes rather than eighths. This B theme also has a kind of question-and-answer first and second part to it, a whole idea unto itself that develops seamlessly out of the A theme. No one is at swords here; sparks don’t fly in conflict, but we are presented with related yet new material, either in the material itself, or the instruments swapping roles, or something similar, so things are always interesting but never too arcane.

Listen for the reappearance of that ever-so-familiar A theme, the one that opened this movement, and that really ties the entire work together. After its reappearance this time, is the C theme, not B again. And what have we here? I was excited to see Hansen’s excitement, like developments from an action film:

Entering over the trailing piano descent and moving smoothly, but directly to E-flat major, the contrasting theme turns out to be the primary melody from the second movement, complete with violin double stops!

Surprise! You knew that didn’t you? When it appeared, if you were following along, I know you must have said “I know that!” and you do. How great is that?

Anyway, those are our key players in this final movement, and the coda that rounds out the rondo and the entire sonata is a creative use of all this material that’s been presented, but it’s also material that ties the entire work together very strongly, all the way from the first gesture of the first movement to the final bars of the coda of the third. But at least for me, it’s not boring. It doesn’t get old.

I’ll be honest in saying that this might not be a piece I come to often, but a friend asked me recently about Brahms’ signature, his innovations, the stamp he left on music, and while he was generally considered to be quite the conservative composer, his dedication to musical integrity carries through, at least in spirit, even into the Second Viennese School. His love for Beethoven, reverence for classical forms and tradition, his adherence to absolute music, no program stuff for him, all show in a piece like this.

Maybe the average ear today isn’t as musically inclined as it was back then. Well, that is absolutely 100% the case, but even among classical music fans, avid listeners, we might not be as keen on picking these things up if we’re not musically trained and/or looking at the score, but with at least a little dedication and interest, I really do feel like Brahms takes you by the hand and gives you milestones along the way, shows you what he’s doing with at least some of his handiwork. But the more you can identify, the more you appreciate it, and that’s what it’s about, isn’t it? In some ways, then, I’d say that appreciating Brahms is as intellectual a pursuit as it is say, Boulez or Webern, but this article is beyond long enough already.

We’re done with The Bearded Wonder for now, but this weekend gives us the reappearance of a famous name we haven’t seen in many years, so do stay tuned for that. Thank you so much to both of you for reading this far.

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3 thoughts on “Brahms Violin Sonata No. 1 in G, Op. 78, ‘Regensonate’

    1. Brahms is one of those composers… of such pure musical genius, that’s also been discussed (by very informed people) for more than a century, so it’s a little intimidating to write about his works, but they’re also just so splendid… thanks!

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