Top 5 Sonatas from the Romantic Period: #3

#3: Brahms – Sonata No. 3 in F minor, Op. 5 (1853)

Even though Brahms’s Second Symphony still gets overplayed, and chamber musicians get excited about pieces like the Horn Trio Op. 40 or the Piano Quartet Op. 60, lately I’ve perceived that Brahms is losing popularity in the solo piano world. Maybe his high-minded, intellectual style isn’t capturing people like it used to. But this could be a huge generalization. Change my mind.

It’s no secret that Brahms struggled under the weight of Beethovenian influence, writing and destroying many drafts of his first symphony. He wanted so badly to continue that line of German art, as a contrast to the unrestrained excesses of Wagner. And this piano sonata, already his third outing in the form at the age of twenty, is a pretty satisfying statement. It’s big and serious and feels orchestral at times.

The first fifteen seconds of the sonata already feel iconic on first listening: a stern three-quarter time trudge from bass to above the treble staff, ending on some huge dominant chords. The stage has been set for an epic journey. Then we get some restless three-on-two murmurings in the tenor range, and a repeat of the opening gestures with even more angst. Next, Brahms tones down the storm with a more hopeful transformation of a descending whole-step/ascending minor third idea that has populated the material so far. This is marked fest und bestimmt – hopeful and determined. He uses sixteen bars to gradually wind down into a more dreamy mood for his lovely second subject in A-flat, full of yearning suspensions. I love the second half of this idea, a delicate chromatic descent over pedal bass. I don’t know how to describe it except cozy, like settling down in front of the fireplace. There’s a similar comfort in Brahms’s Intermezzo Op. 76, No. 4, coincidentally also in A-flat. The necessity of a repeat yanks us out of the reverie, back into F minor, but it’s such a concise and interesting exposition that I never mind riding past those sights again.

The development lurches between moods, but it feels like an earnest psychological expression rather than a mishmash of ideas. One standout detail is that Brahms brings a ta-ta-ta-TA rhythm, previously hidden in the bass during that 3-on 2 stuff, up into a middle register in octaves, so that it’s impossible to miss. It’s a rhythmic signature that usually suggests fate or even a funeral march (or, admittedly relevant to Brahms, the motto of a particularly imposing Beethoven symphony). What is twenty-year-old Brahms thinking about? Then he leaves the funeral for a more inward, espressivo section full of wistfulness and some pangs of dissonance. The final transition out of the development is a triumphant reharmonization of the first subject before it turns dark again. The recapitulation whizzes by; it really is a pretty compact exposition! Brahms ends the movement in another triumphant mood, carrying the music to F major.

A few lines of poetry stand at the opening of the Andante:

Through evening’s shade, the pale moon gleams
While rapt in love’s ecstatic dreams
Two hearts are fondly beating.
-Sternau

A-flat and D-flat, the two major keys from the first movement, form the two worlds explored in this movement. The main theme has a nice graceful spirit with some trills on key notes. A second, unrelated section in portato sixteenths reminds me a bit of some French composers for organ, like Franck or Widor, though they wrote most of their works much later. The first D-flat major section often sounds reminiscent of Schumann (to whom this piece was dedicated), though the D-flat pedal in the bass is very much a Brahms thing. This section gradually gathers energy into a statement, con passione, in large arpeggiated chords over bass triplets. The triplets continue back into the key of A-flat for a reiteration of the opening material, a transition winding down, and then…something new. Back in D-flat, Brahms takes his time to work up a very deliberate, ppp melody in crystalline chords before exploding into a huge ff statement. This climax forms the centerpiece for all the longing and ambition in the piece. It speaks of great, exciting things just around the corner. A great moment of arrival and triumph.

I have a guess about the nature of the joke in the Scherzo. I think Brahms whipped up a festive major-key waltz and then altered it to the minor, the same way that I would sometimes play gloomy minor-key versions of carols at my family’s Christmas parties until someone told me to stop. The more I listen to this movement, the more I can imagine it if flipped to major mode, warm and vivacious rather than angsty. Some of the thick chordal leaps match the intensity of the first movement, and indeed Brahms may have intended for the pianist to struggle to reach these notes. The Trio, expected to offer relief from the assault, instead presents an oddly wandering chorale. I listened to this section again and again, trying to interpret the ambiguous emotional content.

Next Brahms gives us an Intermezzo that begins with descending phrases almost identical to the beginning of the Andante, but with an insistent bass ostinato that forms another fateful ta-ta-ta-TA. The rhythm is even more severe than before, giving it a definite funereal atmosphere. At times, all we hear are chords ringing out above the march rhythm. It’s the most barren music in the whole piece. From whence does this gloom come? There may be a hint in the subtitle: Rückblick (retrospective; flashback). I would extrapolate that this is Brahms mourning the end of the love of the Andante. No longer are “two hearts fondly beating.” With this in mind, it’s one of the most explicitly narrative passages of music I’ve heard from Brahms.

The Finale has a bit in common with that of Chopin’s Third Sonata, which was #4 in the ranking. It’s another galloping 6/8 construction. But here, instead of relentless churning eighths, Brahms throws out a bunch of different heroic gestures in different registers. It’s easy to imagine this as an orchestrated symphonic movement, with different instrument choirs calling to each other. But then Brahms reminds us this is a piano sonata, with some sixteenth runs leading to a relaxed melody con espressione. In the next section, a more marchlike texture moves through ephemeral moods over a steady D-flat pedal bass. Brahms is so good with pedal bass (prime example: the pedal fugue in the third movement of the Requiem). Needless to say, this passage is one of my favorite moments in the sonata.

After a reprise of the opening material of the movement (this is basically a rondo), Brahms enters the key of D-flat and introduces a new descending motive: F-Eb-Db-Ab. This motto ends up generating several sections of material, from chordal progressions to wispy canonic lines, to the last stop before the coda where the motto is set as part of a running bass line and melodic material in the right hand, and through the coda itself. In this thrilling coda, Brahms throws out all the Romantic fireworks he can muster. It’s a dazzling display of youthful energy. The piece ends with a final statement of the galloping theme, now grandioso and supremely optimistic, and a series of not dominant-tonic cadences but plagal (“amen”) cadences, B-flat to F.

As funny as it is to say, this is quite impressive work for a twenty-year-old. The five-movement form is ambitious but it works. The themes are pretty catchy, and there’s a distinct Brahmsian romantic sentiment running through the piece that can surprise you with its beauty. Another neat aspect is the frequent occurrence of orchestral textures, giving this the feel of a piano symphony at times.

Where to find it:

HL51481290 Brahms: Sonata in F minor, Op. 5 (Henle Urtext Edition)

HL51480038 Brahms: Sonatas, Scherzos, and Ballades (Henle Urtext Edition)

HL50261180 Brahms: Complete Works for Piano Solo, Vol. 1 (Schirmer)

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