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Sonata in E minor for cello and piano, Op. 38


In 1862 Brahms composed three movements of a cello sonata—his first duo sonata. He put it aside, however, until June 1865 when he added a fugal finale to complete the E minor Sonata for amateur cellist Josef Gänsbacher, who had helped secure his appointment as director of the Vienna Singakademie for the 1863–64 season. At the time Gänbacher was practicing law and giving piano and singing lessons, but eventually devoted himself exclusively to teaching singing. By 1866, when Brahms published the piece, he had deleted the Adagio movement, leaving a three-movement work of curious proportions—an expansive first movement, a minuet-like movement with the air of a valse triste (sad waltz), and a powerful fugal closing movement. A manuscript of the deleted slow movement apparently existed until the 1930s, unlike the typical scenario in which Brahms destroyed his discarded movements.

Beloved as a three-movement work, the E minor Sonata takes up the cello-piano tradition of Beethoven, paying homage to the earlier master’s last cello sonata (D major, op. 102, no. 2) by including a fugue as its finale. But Brahms also looks back even further to Bach, whom he also revered greatly. Gänsbacher tells of visiting Brahms after the death of his mother in 1865 and finding him sobbing and playing Bach at the piano—neither of which activity he interrupted despite Gänsbacher’s presence. As pointed out by many commentators, Brahms’s fugue subject bears a striking similarity to Contrapunctus 13 from Bach’s celebrated Art of Fugue. Some have also suggested an additional but more tenuous link between Brahms’s first movement and Bach’s Contrapuntus 3.

Naturally Brahms creates his own rich musical language despite his indebtedness to his predecessors. The remarkable, continually evolving main theme of his first movement rises out of the depths, showing off the cello’s lowest register before highlighting the upper register with impassioned lyricism. The second theme is remarkable for its close imitation between cello and piano, as is the exposition’s closing theme for its consolatory effect aided by a shift to the major mode and rocking accompaniment.

In the Allegretto quasi Menuetto, the two outer sections project a sad kind of whimsy, something Mahler evoked when he came to write the second movement of his Second Symphony. In the center Brahms provides a flowing trio full of Romantic arpeggios, poignant lyricism, and gentle hesitations.

Brahms shatters the gentle mood with the jagged leaping figure and ensuing bustle that constitutes his fugue subject. He then proceeds by ingeniously combining elements of fugue and sonata form, introducing a lovely flowing second theme that gives respite at critical junctures from the contrapuntal intricacies of his fugal material. The grand last appearance of the fugue subject launches a coda that hurtles to its exhilarating conclusion at breakneck speed.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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