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Cello Sonata No. 1 in E minor, Op. 38

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

Brahms loved chamber music in all forms, and wrote piano parts for himself to play. It was not happenstance that he introduced himself to Vienna with chamber music, particularly the G-minor and A-major piano quartets, which he played with the string quartet of violinist Joseph Hellmesberger, who became a life-long friend and supporter.

In those first months in Vienna in the winter of 1862-1863, Brahms thought he was merely a temporary visitor, acquiring some cultural capital credit and experience before being called back home to Hamburg to take over the Hamburg Philharmonic Concerts. When that post went to the singer Julius Stockhausen (who subsequently worked often with Brahms) just as Brahms turned 30 years old, the composer had to readjust his career goals. He landed on his feet however, becoming director of the Vienna Singakademie (by the narrowest of margins, getting the job after a 39-to-38 vote in his favor; he resigned the position a year later).

One of his supporters at the Singakademie was the famous vocal coach and Lieder composer Josef Gänsbacher (1829-1911), who was also an amateur cellist. In appreciation, Brahms dedicated a cello sonata he was working on to Gänsbacher, who was flattered and delighted, and when Brahms visited him, insisted on playing through the piece with the composer, giving rise to a possibly apocryphal but often repeated and utterly characteristic story. In their progress through the piece, Brahms began playing very loudly, causing Gänsbacher to complain that he could not hear himself. “Lucky you,” Brahms replied to the overwhelmed amateur, and proceeded to play even louder.

This Sonata, Op. 38 in E minor, is an odd one, and what ended up getting published in 1866 was not what Brahms and Gänsbacher would have played. Brahms’ original work was in three movements: a large sonata-form Allegro, an Adagio, and an Allegretto quasi Menuetto. In 1865 he added a fugal finale, but before publication he removed the Adagio, leaving the work in three movements, without a true slow movement. (The work was rejected twice before Simrock accepted it for publication in its final form.)

“The young Brahms was hard, almost to harshness; he loved blunt expression and sudden contrasts, and avoided concessions to mere comprehensibility,” as Karl Geiringer wrote, and there are certainly no concessions here, to either performers or listeners, although in pitching the work to Simrock, Brahms wrote that the Sonata “is certainly not difficult to play.”

Although it is nearly as long as the other two movements combined, the opening Allegro is architecturally clean, almost severe in construction. The first edition was titled “Sonate für Pianoforte and Violoncell,” in what was then still a common listing for sonatas of solo instruments with piano. However, as Emanuel Ax wrote in the liner notes for his recording of the piece with Yo-Yo Ma over 20 years ago, “the placement of the instruments in relation to each other is quite fresh and astonishing. The cello is often the bass support of the entire harmonic structure, and the piano is often in the soprano in both hands. This constant shifting of registers, with the cello now above, now below, now in between the hands of the pianist, creates an intimate fusing of the two instruments, so that there is no feeling of a more important voice that is continuous – the lead is constantly shifting.”

Geiringer calls the melancholic Allegretto quasi Menuetto a “valse triste” (sad waltz), but it is also strictly shaped, with a four-note motive that introduces the dance proper, connects it to the contrasting Trio section, and percolates through the whole movement.

The subject of the fugato in the finale seems closely connected to the Contrapunctus XIII of Bach’s The Art of the Fugue. (Geiringer also indicates the likeness of the main theme of the opening Allegro to the Contrapunctus III.) Brahms demonstrates his Bachian command of strict counterpoint with inversions, stretto, and the like, but he also organizes the movement with sonata-form elements as Beethoven did. Polyphony does not equal pedantry here, however. The music is furiously energized by the linear relationships, a brilliantly bristling combination of technical wizardry and expressive power.

-John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.