A morning prayer? A lament? A melancholic longing? Johannes Brahms’ Sonata for Cello and Piano in E minor (Op. 38) strikes a deeply Romantic chord in my heart. The coexistence of distance and intimacy, of deep emotions and profound respect, these are weaved into the tissue of tragedy. What exactly did the composer have in mind? I don’t know. Brahms started to write in 1862 and finished it in 1865. In the meantime he had moved from Germany to Vienna, met Richard Wagner and at the end of 1865, Brahms’ mother had died.
Brahms explained later that the work was a homage to Johann Sebastian Bach, the main theme of the first movement and of the fugue are based on elements of Bach’s “Kunst der Fuge” (The Art of Fugue), that I have presented in an earlier post. The sonata was first performed in 1874 and well received. The music critic and cellist Selmar Bagge noted in the “Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung” that the first movement showed an “artful thematic construction” and that the audience’s aesthetic sense was constantly satisfied.
“Cello and no adagio”
Clara Schumann applauded the piece too, but deplored the absence of a slow movement. The sonata has only three movements and some sources indicate that Brahms actual did write a fourth movement, but choose to destroy it. Apparently not even Clara Schumann could persuade him to publish it. In a letter she wrote that she couldn’t understand “the absence of an adagio. What a pity, cello and no adagio.”
Ludwig van Beethoven was the Brahms’ paragon; he had studied Beethoven’s oeuvre thoroughly, and the composition of a first cello sonata can be viewed as Brahms taking over from Beethoven. Just like the master he gave the cello and the piano equal importance. Op. 38 is dedicated to a a law expert, Josef Gänsbacher. Gänsbacher had given Brahms a manuscript written by Franz Schubert, the score of the song “Der Wanderer”. A precious gift for the avid collectioner that Brahms was and an appropriate way to thank the donor too.
When I look back at the many times that I have listened to this sonata and the emotions it stirred, there is one recurrent impression: The first movement offers a ambiance for the listener’s own metaphysical thoughts. It has an hypnotic effect upon me and unchains my mind from its daily preoccupations to let it wander aimlessly, focus on one thought, than on another. The melancholic mood however pushes my thoughts into a specific direction – the big questions in life. What is the purpose of my life? What goal should I give it? Childhood and youth is over – the time of shared responsibilities has begun.
Brahms still was at the beginning of his career and the shadow of Beethoven was looming large and intimidating. Perhaps the composer’s thoughts wanted to confer his brooding, his confusion. The second movement is more joyful, indeed, but the joy remains restrained, Brahms cannot really shake off the idea of darkness and disarray. The last movement finally begins energetically. Brahms seems to come to grips with his melancholy, resolved now to do something, to assume the said responsibilities. The fact that he wrote this movement several years after the first two and this at a time when he was mourning the death of his mother may account for this newly found will.
Stephen Isserlis, one of my favourite cellists, and the pianist Stephen Hough have recorded the sonata.
© Charles Thibo