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Sonata in E-flat for viola and piano, Op. 120, No. 2


This rich, warm product of Brahms’s later years was originally conceived for the clarinet. While writing his G major String Quintet in the summer of 1890 at Ischl, his holiday haunt, Brahms decided he would retire from composing. Yet the following spring he became so enamored of the playing of Richard Mühlfeld, principal clarinetist of the Meiningen orchestra, that in the next few years he wrote four works all featuring the instrument: the Clarinet Trio and the Clarinet Quintet, both composed mostly in the summer of 1891, and the two Clarinet Sonatas, op. 120, written in the summer of 1894. In order to reach a wider audience Brahms also produced alternate versions of all these works, substituting the viola for the clarinet. He even made violin versions of the Trio and of the two Sonatas.

Brahms was drawn to Mühlfeld as a musician, not for his flash and technical brilliance, but for his warm tone, sophistication, and sensitivity—qualities Brahms emphasized in the four late clarinet works. The composer accompanied Mühlfeld in the first private performance of the Sonatas in November 1894 and also in the first public performances in January 1895. In arranging the Sonatas for viola Brahms transposed certain passages an octave lower and introduced some double stops, but the works were already well suited for the deep, mellifluous tone of the viola; the piano part was left unchanged. With these Sonatas Brahms broke new ground in the repertoire for both the clarinet and the viola.

The Sonatas follow Brahms’s tendency to compose in pairs—usually contrasting in character. The F minor Sonata displays storminess in its first movement and ebullience in its last, framing more intimate inner movements in a fairly traditional four-movement framework. The E-flat major Sonata projects a more relaxed feeling in its outer movements, which surround an impassioned scherzo—a less orthodox three-movement sequence.

The E-flat major first movement, Brahms’s last in sonata form, shows just how pliable the form could be in his hands. The songful, amabile (amiable) main theme is immediately varied, leading succinctly to his second theme, which as in many of his works is a theme group. Brahms delights in obscuring the outlines of the form so that the end of the exposition and beginning of the development flow seamlessly together. Similarly the end of the development and beginning of the recapitulation are dovetailed.

The E-flat minor second movement, Brahms’s last scherzo, takes an intense stand as the Sonata’s centerpiece. Yet it, too, relaxes in a lovely oasis, a trio in B major, rich in the parallel thirds and sixths and the octave doublings of which Brahms was so fond.

Brahms turned to his beloved variation form one last time in the closing movement. The first three variations return to the Classic technique of employing increasingly faster note values so that the basic subdivisions change from predominantly eighth notes, to sixteenths, to thirty-second notes. Far from becoming cluttered, Brahms’s texture retains a miraculous clarity. The fourth variation relaxes with quiet, syncopated chords to set up the only fiery variation, the fifth, which also shifts to the minor mode. Amiability returns with the Più tranquillo coda, but Brahms allows the two instrumentalists their virtuosic say in the final bars of the piece.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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