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Sonata in D major, Op. 78 (arr. Paul Klengel)

Johannes Brahms

The piano was Brahms’ instrument, of course, but the composer had an intense and fraught relationship with the violin – and violinists – that was crucial to his career. Brahms gave his first solo piano concert at the age of 15, but it was a concert tour at the age of 20 with the Hungarian violinist Reményi (Eduard Hoffman) in 1853 that was the most formative and far-reaching event of Brahms’ early career. At Reményi’s side Brahms learned the alla zingarese gypsy style that would later turn up in so much of his music.

On that tour, in Göttingen, Brahms also met the violinist Joseph Joachim, who became a close personal friend and a lifelong musical colleague and confidante. Brahms dedicated his Op. 1, the Piano Sonata in C major he completed that year, to Joachim. (Years later, Brahms also dedicated his Violin Concerto to Joachim, who had advised him on its composition and who played the premiere, championing the work throughout Europe.)

Brahms had a violin sonata then as well, written specifically to play on the tour with Reményi. The manuscript was lost, then found, and then lost again, after Brahms decided it was not worth publishing. Relentlessly self-critical, Brahms disposed of many early efforts in every genre this way: that Op. 1 Piano Sonata, for example, was labeled “Fourth Sonata” on its manuscript.

Similarly, Brahms’ official Violin Sonata No. 1 may also have been his fourth. In 1878, the same year he completed the Violin Concerto, Brahms began the first violin sonata he would keep, Op. 78 in G major. Gustav Jenner, Brahms’ only true composition student, related how Brahms encouraged him to write regularly and told him that the stove was there for the unsuccessful efforts. “Perhaps it may be of more general interest if I remark here that Brahms’ first violin sonata is the fourth. Three previous ones were suppressed because they did not pass his criticism,” Jenner wrote in his 1905 memoir.

The Op. 78 Violin Sonata was composed in the summers of 1878 and 1879 at the town of Pörtschach on Lake Worth. “The melodies fly so thick here that you have to be careful not to step on one,” Brahms wrote, explaining the tunefulness of the Sonata. Nearly 20 years later, the multifaceted pianist/violinist/composer/teacher/editor Paul Klengel (1854-1935) arranged it for cello and piano, and Simrock published that version in 1897, the last year of Brahms’ life. (The enterprising Klengel also adapted two of Brahms’ solo piano Intermezzos for cello and piano, among more than a dozen other Brahms arrangements for Simrock, including another arrangement of Op. 78 for solo piano.)

Klengel was undoubtedly inspired by his brother, the virtuoso cellist Julius Klengel, with whom he often performed in duo recitals. Klengel transposed the work down to D major, and made numerous other changes in the parts. (In addition to their recording of this transcription and Brahms’ two original cello sonatas, Emanuel Ax and Yo-Yo Ma have also performed and recorded Brahms’ D-minor Violin Sonata, Op. 108, leaving it in the original key with Ma simply playing the violin part an octave lower.)

One of the problems that had vexed Brahms with his earlier attempts at a violin sonata was the question of balance between the string instrument and the more powerful keyboard. The solution he found, for Op. 78 at least, was to treat the texture basically as in his songs, with the violin clearly leading and the piano supplying thinner accompaniment. He even used the closely related melodies of two of his own Op. 59 songs, “Regenlied” (Rain Song, which has given the Sonata its common nickname) and “Nachklang” (Memories) in the finale of the three-movement Sonata.

This is a tightly organized work, with its seed in the three repeated notes that begin “Regenlied.” Brahms uses them (and the rest of the tune, of course) to launch the finale, but he also brings them in at the beginning of the first movement as well. Their dotted rhythm can be found in many places throughout the Sonata, and particularly in the contrasting Più Andante at the center of the A-B-A song-form Adagio. And then in the finale, the cello recalls the beginning of the Adagio, in the same key. (The main part of the Adagio – in the transposed cello version – is in B-flat major. The finale is mostly in D minor, with a sweet slip into D major for the soft, gentle ending.)

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