Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Sonata No. 1 in E Minor for Cello and Piano, Op. 38
Instrumentation: Cello and piano
This season’s exploration of works that reach back into the past continues with this evening’s recital. Two nights ago, the works by Ravel, Stravinsky, and Prokofiev each consciously drew from musical models from prior centuries. Although this neo-Classical practice flourished in the early 20th century, we can find similar approaches in earlier (and later) music as well. The Brahms Cello Sonata No. 1 is a notable early example of this compositional impulse.
Brahms was a devotee of earlier music from a young age. His first piano recitals as a teenager leaned most heavily on Beethoven and Bach, and a renewed fascination with contrapuntal techniques (music that features two or more independent melodic lines) while in his early-20s plunged him into deep study of the topic from the Baroque perspective. Rather than finding a teacher, Brahms acquired some books and convinced his good friend and fellow composer Joseph Joachim to embark on a kind of correspondence learning exchange in 1856. In a lively series of letters that lasted for months, the two would submit exercises in canons, fugues, and other contrapuntal writing to each other for comment and critique. They would occasionally challenge each other to compose passages based on particular fragments or themes. And to keep each other honest, the correspondent would be obligated to pay a small fee if they did not submit their solutions in a timely fashion (the money would be earmarked for new books). Although most of the material was newly composed, the two composers could not resist the challenge to produce canons written against the fugal subject from Bach’s The Art of the Fugue, arguably the most ingenious example of contrapuntal writing in the Western musical world. While a number of Brahms’s exercises eventually grew into actual works, his Art of the Fugue canons were lost (though many of Joachim’s survived). It is intriguing to consider how this exchange shaped the Cello Sonata written a few years later, a work that seems to directly reference the Baroque master’s incredible achievement.
The first movement is one of expansive expressivity. Brahms’s knack for spinning out lush, boundless melodies is on full display here, with the first theme covering no fewer than 20 measures to open the work. The inspirational seed for this melody likely came from Bach, with an opening that resembles the themes from his Art of the Fugue and Musical Offering. On the other hand, the formal frame here is taken from his Viennese predecessors: his oft-used sonata form. Always original, Brahms takes liberties with the form, creating a unique narrative impression. The transition to the impassioned B minor second theme is an unusual excursion into C major, a moment of joy and nostalgia. The end of the exposition is equally unexpected, with a flip to B major and an enveloping warmth of a lyrical closing theme. Brahms follows this through in the recapitulation (now in E major), capping it off with a peaceable coda.
The middle movement is Brahms’s playful take on the minuet, a Baroque dance form that was widely used in instrumental music of the Classical era. This is one of just a handful of minuets Brahms wrote, as he tended to prefer the scherzo—a similar but perhaps freer form—as his go-to construct for contrasting middle movements. The charming A minor movement uses what scholar Ryan McClelland has termed an “extended upbeat” in the piano—a four-beat wind-up that sets up the melody proper. This humorous hitch returns throughout and its turn-figure becomes motivic. As the minuet progresses, the texture thickens into a Romantic sweep, as if Brahms has gotten so caught up in his music that he lost sight of his dance. Just as the proceedings threaten to get completely out of hand, the initial texture returns us to normalcy. The flowing Trio section has its own recurring hitch: an odd hesitancy at phrase beginnings, a pause as if to express a slight reluctance to dive into the cascade of lyricism.
Brahms returns to Bach for inspiration for his vigorous finale, a dynamic fugue. Contrapunctus 13 of the Art of the Fugue is a remarkable feat of counterpoint even by Bach’s standards. The extended three-voice fugue uses both the regular and inverted forms of the fugal subject in the exposition, and after reaching the end, the entire movement is played again with all three voices inverted and registrally swapped. Brahms eschews such strict formalities in his movement. But he nevertheless captures the spirit of Bach’s innovations by exploiting the compositional freedoms afforded to him in his own time to develop the motivic material in ways Bach could not possibly have imagined. Brahms’s subject hews very closely to that from Contrapunctus 13: an emphatic octave leap down followed by a spill of triplets that initially move up. Like Bach, Brahms inverts this theme freely, with the octave leap sometimes moving up and answered by a downward triplet cascade. The prickly fugal sections alternate with episodes of great lyricism allowing Brahms to deconstruct the motivic elements of the fugal subject—the octave leap and the triplets—and develop them both separately and together. A thrillingly virtuosic coda caps off the proceedings.
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)
Sonata in D Minor for Cello and Piano, Op. 40
Instrumentation: Cello and piano
Audiences familiar with Shostakovich’s later chamber music—most notably his 15 string quartets, monuments to the genre—might be surprised by the Cello Sonata. Still in his 20s in 1934, Shostakovich was four years away from composing the first of those string quartets, and the Cello Sonata was the first large scale chamber work he completed. There is an intense, prolonged lyricism in this music that seems to grow directly out of the late-nineteenth century Romantic style, but this is balanced by scaffolding that is surprisingly Classical in style. Textures also project a clarity and precision from models closer to Mozart than Brahms. At the same time, there is a tonal fluidity and a freedom of dissonance in the Cello Sonata that Shostakovich would develop further in his later scores (including his 1973 String Quartet No. 14 which the Edgar M Bronfman String Quartet will perform a week from tonight at the Presbyterian Church of the Big Wood).
Shostakovich’s professional star was on the rise when he composed the Cello Sonata, written for cellist and recital collaborator Viktor Kubatsky. Already prolific with works for stage and screen, Shostakovich saw the wild success of the early productions of his socially shocking opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District in January 1934. At the same time, his young marriage to wife Nina was on the rocks when he fell in love with translator Yelena Konstantinovskaya. The affair led to a quick divorce. By 1936, however, the strength of his professional reputation and chaos of his personal life would completely reverse. Lady Macbeth was viciously condemned by Stalin leading to a nearly immediate artistic ostracization of Shostakovich, while he and Nina had reconciled, remarried, and had a child.
Like the Brahms sonata, the opening movement begins with an extended lyrical phrase in the cello—at times slipping into a major key from the minor—here spanning 15 measures before being picked up by the piano. Shostakovich’s reliance on Classical sonata form (like Brahms) is particularly notable here: he even notates a repeat of the exposition section, a practice that had long fallen out of favor. The sustained lyricism of the movement leaves the deepest impression, but Shostakovich is also playing with the formal expectations, again not unlike Brahms. The tranquil second theme, first heard in a clarion-clear expressive piano line, arrives in unexpectedly in B major (a great tonal distance from the standard F major). When the two themes return in the recapitulation, Shostakovich flips the order, allowing for a magical final return to the original theme at the end, in the muted cello at a much-slowed tempo.
The brief A minor second movement is a Russian-infused take on the scherzo. The outer sections feature an insistent A pedal under a heavily accented tune that incorporates a rhythmic determination that will come to characterize Shostakovich’s later scores. The middle section features unusual arpeggios made up of cello harmonics (eerie upper-register string overtones).
Shostakovich abandons the pretense of instrumental equity in the Largo, which is an emotional lament for cello with piano accompaniment. The opening for cello alone is fully notated but feels free from the bounds of rhythm and meter. The main section of the movement gives the impression of a melody that is constantly being extended. The piano is essential in its complementary role, providing unusual strokes of color through all 7+ octaves of its range. The opening gesture returns at the end to frame the movement.
The vigorous finale wakes us from our reverie. There are again echoes of Classical phrase balance and structure here. Shostakovich uses an amalgam of rondo form and theme and variation form to organize the movement. The predictable ebb and flow of the phrases allows Shostakovich to develop his material freely, so he includes furiously rapid moto perpetuo passages for the cello and then the piano.
Program notes by Jon Kochavi