Our music for this week is the Sonata No. 1 for cello and piano by Johannes Brahms, performed by Jean-Guihen Queyras on the cello and Alexandre Tharaud on the piano.
If you have been with us for a while now, you have probably picked up on the importance of J.S. Bach in the world of classical music. Many consider him to be the father of Western music, and almost every single composer has written at least one composition in homage to him. Brahms is no exception. This cello sonata was written in honor of J.S. Bach, and we can see very tangible evidence of this in the fugue that Brahms includes in the first movement.
Brahms, however, also did his fair share of trailblazing. As an accomplished pianist, he was not a fan of the accompaniment role so often given to the piano in sonatas. He therefore wrote in the front of the manuscript that the piano “should be a partner – often a leading, often a watchful and considerate partner – but it should under no circumstances assume a purely accompanying role.” He also titled the work, “Sonata for Piano and Cello,” which, by listing the piano first, implies that the cello is the accompanying voice. It is also telling that the sonata was written for a man named Joseph Gansbacher, an amateur cellist who reportedly lacked the ability to project an adequately robust sound into a concert hall. During the first rehearsal, with Brahms at the piano and Gansbacher at the cello, Gansbacher had to stop mid-phrase because the piano was so loud he couldn’t even hear himself play. When he complained to Brahms about this predicament, the composer growled, “Lucky for you,” and thundered on.
A few things for you to listen for:
- The first movement is where you will hear the fugal structure that is reminiscent of Bach’s music. It can be a bit difficult to pick out the cello line at times because of the deep and dark colors that Brahms assigns it.
- Listen for a Baroque dance in the second movement, another reference to Bach.
- The fugue returns in the third movement, but this time it is assigned to both instruments. Again, however, Brahms makes sure that the piano is the dominant voice; in fact, it carries three out of the four voices in the fugue.