Almost every morning our garden is my first encounter with the outer world. I have to cross it to get to my car. It is as silent as a graveyard at this time of the year and at the time I usually leave. Most of the birds are gone or still asleep. The cat is too lazy to leave its cozy corner in the shed. When it’s not foggy, the silence at sunrise let’s me admire the beauty of dawn without any distraction. I usually allow for a minute of contemplation or two before getting into the car. It is one of the defining moments of day. It is the moment of self-interrogation. Am I upset? Happy? Nervous? Serene? And how will I deal with the answer I get?
Brahms keeps us in limbo
Johannes Brahms has written a piece that strikes me as a musical question mark. I don’t know what questions it asks, but I know for certain that it gives no answers. It would seem that its sole purpose is to invite the listener to stand still, to look and listen and feel, to give room to thoughts, to allow questions to surface.
The piece keeps the listener in a limbo. Occasionally there are comforting moments, but the overall mood of Brahms’ Violin Sonata No. 3 in D minor, Op. 108, is interrogative, reflective. I recently bought a recording featuring the violinist Christian Tetzlaff and the pianist Lard Vogt. I do not regret it.
Brahms wrote the sonata between 1886 and 1888, and one of the first to see the finished score was his former student, the pianist Elisabeth von Herzogenberg. In a letter to Brahms written on October 30, 1888 she says: “My dear, you did well, or rather you didn’t [do anything] as [this piece] has flowed to you like the sea…” Another correspondent of Brahms, Clara Schumann, expressed a month later her admiration about the cyclical pattern that characterize the sonata: “How it all intertwines like perfumed tendrils!”
A gesture of redemption
Brahms dedicated the piece to his long-time friend Hans von Bülow a well-known pianist and conductor. The friendship with von Bülow had suffered in the past and the sonata was meant as a gesture of redemption, much appreciated by von Bülow. It was first performed in Budapest in December 1888 with Brahms playing the piano and Jenö Hubay performing the violin part.
What strikes me is the highly dramatic opening tune of the first movement, that keeps coming back. Hence my ideas about unanswered questions. The second movement is marked by a rich, beautiful melody – one of the comforting moments. But then – the third movement! The piano leads and guides the violin through a gaily tune with growing tension and occasional breaks – an echo of Beethoven perhaps? The finale starts vigorously: The piano anticipates the main theme with full chords while the violin plays a rapidly oscillating line. Presto agitato. And agitated the listener is, he feels the tension at every bar. It is impressive how much you can achieve with just two instruments! And it’s beautiful, beautiful music!
If Brahms paves the way for a self-interrogation, he offers at the same time the assurance that we do not need to be afraid about the answers. He’s not torn or desperate like Franz Schubert, no, he is confident that asking the right question will expand our knowledge about ourselves and will give us strength to face our daily life challenges. And strength we will need.
© Charles Thibo