What might we learn from an oddity concerning the first movement of Brahms’s Violin Sonata No. 1 in G, op. 78, that has led many violin-piano duos either to ignore Brahms’s tempo markings or actually play the opposite of what he wrote?
Brahms’s score is explicit. The basic tempo is Vivace ma non troppo (lively, but not overly so). Near the middle of this mostly lyrical movement, when the movement’s most agitated music begins, Brahms wrote più sostenuto (more sustained). Then, leading into the opening theme’s return, Brahms wrote poco a poco—Tempo I (gradually return to the first tempo). In other words, play the lyrical opening in a relatively lively manner, play the climactic music and what follows more slowly, then speed up and return to the lively tempo.
We know that Brahms himself played the sonata this way. The Hungarian violin virtuoso Jenö Hübay (1858–1937) told his pupil Joseph Szigeti (1892–1973) that when he performed the sonata with Brahms, Brahms insisted on those tempo changes. Szigeti, in turn, included this anecdote in his memoir, A Violinist’s Notebook.
It makes one wonder. Why did Brahms discuss these tempos with Hübay? Why did Hübay tell Szigeti? And why, over half a century later, did Szigeti include this anecdote in his memoir? There’s a common-sense answer to these questions. When Hübay and Brahms first rehearsed the sonata, Hübay probably played the tempos the way most violinists and pianists were already playing the movement. They’d play the softer, lyrical sections in a more relaxed manner than Vivace ma non troppo, speed up when the music gets louder and more agitated, and slow down when returning to the return to lyricism at the Tempo I. After all, it’s intuitive to play lyrical music in a relaxed manner and more agitated music in a faster tempo—especially in the nineteenth century, when performers varied tempos much more than is done nowadays. But that’s clearly not what Brahms requested. Why?
Delving into the sonata and events happening around the time it was composed can lead us toward a likely answer. Even when the piece was brand new, listeners recognized that the middle of the slow movement is a funeral march, and that the finale’s rondo theme is closely based on two of Brahms’s Lieder. The poems in those Lieder are about rain drops—a common Romantic-poetic metaphor for tears. In “Regenlied” (“Rain Song,” op. 59 no. 3), raindrops evoke memories of youth. In “Nachklang” (“Echo,” op. 59 no. 4), the narrator assures us that when the sun shines after the rain, the grass will be greener, but he will continue to weep. People wondered. Was the sonata a memorial to someone close to Brahms—perhaps Felix Schumann, the talented youngest son of Robert and Clara Schumann, and Brahms’s godson? Felix had just died at age 24, following a six-year struggle with tuberculosis.
Brahms almost never communicated about his compositional intentions. He didn’t dedicate the piece to Felix’s memory (or even, less specifically, “to the memory of a young artist”). He didn’t write “funeral march” in the score (as composers as different as Beethoven and Chopin had done in sonatas of theirs). But he did send a brief score and letter to his lifelong friend Clara shortly before Felix died—while Brahms was completing the sonata. Sending Clara the slow movement’s opening, he wrote “it will say to you, perhaps more clearly than I otherwise could, how heartfelt my thoughts are concerning you and Felix.” For over a century, this letter remained undiscovered in an archive.
Do those words tell us why Brahms requested tempos in the first movement that have seemed unintuitive to so many performers? When the sonata begins, are the luscious melodies and textures evocations of a youthful creative soul whose death is commemorated in the slow movement’s funeral march, and who is remembered amid tears as the finale opens? That seems likely, because the funeral march’s opening motive uses the exact same pitches as the first movement’s most rapturous theme. It seems likely, because the finale opens with the violin playing the very same notes it played as the sonata began—but now all alone at first, unsupported by rich piano chords. Perhaps the agitated music in the middle of the first movement is not music excited about the beginning’s lyrical themes (an interpretation that might suggest a faster tempo), but rather portrays the violent destruction wrought upon the youthful artist by a terrible illness?
Interpreters of this music—performers, listeners, and analysts—who consider such details in the music, in its allusions, in its historical circumstances, and in Brahms’s evocative notation will develop their own interpretations.
Feature image by Valentino Funghi