(Things that no one else would probably ever say about the Brahms F-major Cello Sonata)

by James Nicholas

"…I’m happy with my decision; it's absolutely magnificent here. By the way, I'd also just mention that there's a ton of Biergartens.…"

(Postcard from Brahms, eight days after arriving in Thun, to his future biographer Max Kalbeck)

"…and thank you for the beautiful, lovely sonata; my fondest wish is to get to know it better, because plowing through it twice with Hausmann is not at all enough. You get so excited by your first acquaintance that you can't hear for all the loud sounds. There's roaring and frenzy and gushing in a first encounter like that, but as splendid as all that is, it doesn't allow you to enjoy it quietly. So far, I find the first movement the most gripping. The piece is so greatly compressed; how it surges forward! The concise development is so exciting, and the augmented return of the first theme is such a surprise! Needless to say, we reveled in the beautiful warm sounds of the Adagio, and especially at the magnificent moment when we find ourselves again in F-sharp major, which sounds so marvelous. I'd like to hear you yourself play the Scherzo, with its driving power and energy (I can hear you constantly snorting and grunting in it!) No one else would succeed in playing it as I imagine it: agitated without rushing, legato and yet inwardly restless and propulsive. I'd like to be able to practice it that way, and also to come to an understanding of the last movement, with its sort of lyrical theme - I had the feeling that its mood contrasts too much with the grand style of the other movements, but, as I said, I'd like to hear it more and learn how to play it."

(Letter to Brahms from his friend Elisabet von Herzogenberg, dated December 2, 1886, upon receiving a manuscript copy of the sonata for review)


It had to be one of the most productive holidays ever spent: during a summer retreat in 1886 at Hofstetten near Lake Thun in Switzerland, Brahms composed three of his best-loved chamber music masterpieces: our Cello Sonata in F major, op. 99; the radiant Violin Sonata in A major, op. 100; and the terse and passionate Piano Trio in C minor, op. 101. What can one add to the reams that have been written about the striking contrasts between the two cello sonatas? The E-minor is brooding, nostalgic, veiled; perhaps yet another tribute to the deceased Robert Schumann, as the First Piano Concerto and the German Requiem are said to be. On the other hand, the F-major, written between twenty-one and twenty-four years later, is such a whirlwind of concentrated energy that, apart from the intricate and flawless compositional technique, it might pass for the work of a composer far younger than the fifty-three year old Brahms.

The fiery, exultant opening of Op. 99 calls to mind the boldness of the opening of the Third Symphony (F major, Op. 90), and bears an even closer family resemblance to the swirling, almost dizzying opening of the G-major Quintet, op. 111, which Brahms had originally intended to be his final opus and his farewell to composition. The tremolando piano accompaniment is most unusual for Brahms and scarcely occurs elsewhere in his piano writing. This is a standard, and perhaps overused, device of arrangers wishing to simulate agitated orchestral textures on the piano. Brahms, however, uses it here with electrifying effect. For years I puzzled over what the significance of this strikingly unusual texture might be, unable to find a precedent. Perhaps Brahms intended to call to mind the characteristic sound of the cimbalom, or hammer dulcimer, a typical component of the Hungarian/gypsy folk ensembles of which he was so fond. 1

Although the tremolando device is very rare in Brahms' piano music, it is not as scarce in his writing for strings. Notable examples of the same sort of bariolage (rapid alternation between strings) found in bars 60 ff of the cello part can also be found in the finale of the First Symphony, op. 68 (bars 31 ff), the Tragic Overture, op. 81 (bars 404 ff) and thoughout the coda of the finale of the Third Symphony, op. 90. I have read, in the pages of this newsletter, some speculation that Brahms actually intended the tremolandi in the cello part of op. 99 to sound as pulsating, tripletized double stops. While my "great-grandteacher" Robert Hausmann may have played them that way, evidence suggests that Brahms intended to hear exactly what he wrote, as he was unusually meticulous in his notation. 2

Brahms knew how to notate pulsating, tripletized double stops when he wanted them; see the Quartet in A minor, Op. 51 No. 2, Quasi menuetto, bar 3, and the Quintet in G major, Op. 111, first movement, bars 98 ff.

There is no question that the tremolando bowing is challenging in faster tempi, but I would be wary of attempting to prove that the composer’s notation, in a technically challenging passage, is actually intended to convey a compromise solution necessitated by a performer's technical inadequacies. I suggest using a compact, concentrated, rather short stroke centered just below the middle of the bow. The pattern traced in the air by the right hand will resemble three figure-eights laid end-to-end.

Many performances leave me with the feeling that the players do not really comprehend Brahms' subtle metric and rhythmic manipulations in the second theme group, and a continually loud dynamic and equal accentuation of every beat help to obscure these even more. Measures 36-39 contain a hemiola and could have been written this way:

Example 1

The cello's answering phrase (mm 42-45) elides one beat and could be written as:

Example 2


Example 3

Measures 51-55 temporarily displace the downbeat to a position one quarter-note earlier, meaning that there is an extra beat toward the end of the phrase, i.e.:

Example 4

This sonata was written during a period in which Brahms made use of unusual or mixed meters with increasing frequency. There are brief passages of 5/4 (not notated as such) in the first movement of the Violin Concerto, op. 77 (e.g. mm 53-57, 69-73, etc.). The second theme group of the Third Symphony’s opening movement is in 9/4, the rest of the movement being written in 6/4. The first movement of the C minor Piano Trio, op. 101, which is in 3/4, contains an isolated bar of 4/4 (measure 35) in the exposition and again in the parallel place in the recapitulation. The Andante grazioso of the same trio begins with one bar of 3/4 followed by two bars of 2/4, and continues in this pattern. In the finale of the Clarinet Trio, op. 114, there are several groups of 9/8 interpolated into the general context of 2/4 and 6/8. Brahms did not always specifically indicate these changing meters with time signatures, but where they are implicit, the performer can do much to help clarify them for the listener. Otherwise, entire passages can (and do) become obscure or incomprehensible.

The breathtakingly beautiful Adagio affettuoso is evidently either identical to the deleted slow movement of the E-minor sonata, or it is a reworked version if it. In any case, the tempo indication of the earlier version survived intact. The opening of this movement poses another perception problem for the listener if the tempo lags below a certain threshold. The Corelli-style bass line, played pizzicato by the cellist, is undoubtedly melodic and interesting. In fact, a slight variant of it appears in the last movement of the German Requiem, set to the text "[Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on. Yes, says the Spirit, and] their works shall follow after them" 3

However, it is only one of two melodic elements presented simultaneously; a counterpoint to the sustained, highly chromatic theme in the piano. Because of the decay of the piano sound, the listener often does not perceive the upper voice of the piano as thematic when the tempo is too static. Brahms is known to have complained about people playing his Andantes as Adagios, and his Adagios too slowly. Unfortunately for those who like quantitative evidence, Brahms commented that his temperament just did not mix well with the metronome, and he dismissed whatever metronome markings he did provide as "valid for the first bar." It's enlightening, however, to examine the metronome markings for slow movements by Brahms' friend and colleague, Dvorak. For example, the Adagio of the Eighth Symphony (1889), like the Adagio of our cello sonata, is written in 2/4 and contains a mix of sixteenth-notes, sextuplets, and thirty-seconds. Dvorak indicates a tempo of 84 to the eighth-note, a marking which occurs regularly among Beethoven's adagios. This may seem horrifyingly fast, especially for the Brahms adagio with its qualifying adjective of "affetuoso" (tender). However, it does serve to remind us that we should consider the quarter note as the basic metric unit (which is illustrated very clearly by mm 37 ff); that the eighth-notes, being subdivisions, are still quite flowing, and that counting in sixteenths ought to be completely out of the question. Keeping in mind Brahms' comment "Tempo modifications are nothing new, but should be taken with discretion," I would suggest trying the Adagio at something like 60 to the eighth-note (60 being Beethoven's marking for the subdivision in the Adagio molto e cantabile of the Ninth Symphony). I would also encourage the cellist to experiment with alternating the first and second fingers of the right hand while playing the pizzicati. This demands an extra measure of control, but it does impart a forward impetus and flow to the sixteenth-notes while actually creating a more legato, singing feel.

Several commentators have pointed out that the opening of the third movement is a variant of the Third Symphony's finale theme. Whether the quotation was conscious or not, either movement could be called the distilled essence of Brahms - and it is not difficult to imagine him humming and grunting through the piano part of this scherzo (as Elisabet von Herzogenberg did), looking like one of the famous pencil caricatures of Brahms by Willy von Beckerath. There is a widespread mannerism, among pianists, of broadening the hemiola bars 110 and 112. Unfortunately, this has the negative effect of destroying the tension in the rhythmic conflict engineered by Brahms in juxtaposing the descending three-note motif (in bars 109 and 111) with its augmentation. Try playing these strictly in tempo, at least most of the time! The Trio seems to owe as much to Schubert as to Brahms. Performers often overlook the fact that the basic dynamic levels are quite subtle: piano and pianissimo.

The finale, which Mrs. von Herzogenberg first thought might be too lyrical a contrast to the first three movements, has its parallel in the carefree last movement of the otherwise monolithic Second Piano Concerto. As in the first movement, there are some disguised meter changes. Performers can help to make these perceptible by phrasing these bars with care, and not automatically accenting what look like downbeats. Measures 20-22 actually comprise four bars of 3/4; the same pertains to the parallel passage, mm. 99-101. Measures 91-93, on the other hand, constitute 2 bars of 3/2. The cello's final statement of the rondo theme, pizzicato, would have been a bit easier to execute in Brahms’ time, as the gut strings then in use were substantially thicker than the steel or fiber ones generally used today, and the tension on them was much lower.

Though many of today's string players find it hard to imagine, the evidence is overwhelming that the continuous vibrato which is the norm today (especially the fast and intense kind) was not a feature of nineteenth-century string playing. This was especially true among Brahms' circle. Joseph Joachim's Violinschule makes it clear that vibrato was to be used an embellishment, and that the unwavering tone was to be considered the prevailing one. Joachim's recordings confirm this. Leopold Auer's Violin Playing As I Teach It speaks of the vibrato in exactly the same terms. Brahms seems to have shared Joachim's opinion that the vibrato "is strangely romantic and mysterious in effect when employed harmonically"; Cobbett's Cyclopedic Survey of Chamber Music cites one of the first readings of the Clarinet Quintet, during which Brahms suggested that the entire quartet make use of vibrato in the central section of the Adagio to create a mysterious effect. 4

A word about Robert Hausmann (1852-1909): Hausmann, born in Berlin, was a celebrated soloist and chamber musician who played an active role in the musical life of London as well as of the Continent. Appointed professor of cello at the Berlin Hochschule while he was in his late twenties, he was a member of the Joachim quartet for almost twenty years. It was he who made Brahms' E-minor sonata known and appreciated, and, according to Elisabet von Herzogenberg, was "crazy with excitement" when he received the F major. Hausmann not only gave the premiere of the F major sonata, but was also the soloist, with Joachim, in the premiere of the Double Concerto, Op. 102. Though he never used an end pin (like his pupil, my "grandteacher" Percy Such), he was famous for his powerful sound, which was once compared (in a positive sense, I hope) to that of a trombone. This obviously was an advantage for Hausmann in playing a work like the Brahms F major Sonata, particularly in a passage like bars 28-29 of the Adagio affettuoso, where one could well imagine trombones intoning this theme threateningly in a Schubertian manner. Incidentally, according to Percy Such's student, my former cello teacher Maurice Bialkin, Hausmann had related to Percy Such that the theme which became the opening melody of the Clarinet Quintet had originally been conceived as a theme for a cello concerto in A minor. Aw, shucks.

In May 1894, a group photo was taken of Brahms among his close friends. Towering in back of Brahms (who is seated) is the tall and distinguished-looking Hausmann. With a look of boyish mischief on his face, Hausmann is holding his arms outstretched over Brahms, pretending to "play" Brahms like a cello. I suppose this would make Hausmann the first of a long line of cellists who have been delighted to have the opportunity, in one way or another, to "play Brahms"!


1. Oddly enough, a similar tremolando piano texture is found in the second theme of the Finale of Schubert's B-flat major Piano Trio, D. 898. The unusual outline of this theme, plus its exotic "cimbalom" accompaniment, perhaps points to a Slavic or Hungarian inspiration. Brahms, despite his awareness of the role he played as the foremost upholder of the "pure" Classical tradition in German music (a role which was thrust upon him by Schumann's article "Neue Bahnen," and a burden which he may have assumed only reluctantly), was not unaffected by, or uninterested in, exoticisms. Late in his life, he heard an American girl in a Viennese café playing ragtime on a banjo. He expressed an interest in exploiting, in some future compositions, some of the rhythms which she performed "on that curious instrument." But he went on to say with regret that he was getting old, and that the ideas did not flow as easily as they used to. Perhaps some of the ragtime influence did find its way, however, into the final variation of the finale of the Clarinet Sonata in E-flat, op. 120 No. 2.

2. See, for example, a letter to Joseph Joachim dated May 1879, in which Brahms challenges Joachim's alteration of Brahms' portato notation from dots under a slur to dashes under a slur, and also protests Joachim's marking of dots under a slur (to indicate a martelé stroke) where Brahms would have preferred staccato "wedges." A similar letter to the publisher Simrock, dated December 1890, deals specifically with the notation of portato as well as sextuplet bariolage figuration in the G-major String Quintet, op. 111.

3. Revelation 14:13. The connection with the E-minor cello sonata’s original slow movement might possibly be explained by the dates of composition of the two works. Most of the cello sonata was composed in 1862, with the Finale added in 1865, by which time the Requiem was in an advanced stage of planning. (The Requiem was finally completed in 1868).

4. Brahms wrote this very provocative comment to Joachim in a letter dated October 18, 1876: "To me, fingerings are always just evidence that something is rotten about the violin writing. But a few open strings here and there delight my eye and calm my spirit." (!)

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