We call it a “Cello Sonata,” but the official name Johannes Brahms gave this piece, completed in 1865, is “Sonate für Klavier und Violoncello.” To stress further the equality between the two instruments, Brahms specified 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.”
The E minor Sonata is dedicated to Josef Gänsbacher, an Austrian music professor and amateur cellist. When, during a private performance for friends, Gänsbacher complained that he couldn’t hear his cello because Brahms was playing so loudly on the piano, the composer growled, “Lucky for you, too.”
The spirit of J.S. Bach hovers around this Sonata. The subject of the three-voice fugue which opens the final movement quotes Contrapunctus 13 from Bach’s The Art of Fugue BWV 1080. The expansive opening theme of the first movement contains echos of the Fourth Contrapunctus from the same set. The second movement (Allegretto quasi Menuetto and Trio) is filled with the graceful elegance of baroque dance. In the trio section, the piano ghosts the cello’s melodic line, creating a glassy, ethereal new voice.
While paying homage to the past, this music ultimately transcends its influences and delivers a bold, powerful and unique new drama. We hear all of the fire, passion, lament, and nostalgia of Brahms. Listen to the conversation between voices, and the way the music develops in “searching” and gradually evolving motivic cells. In the final movement, listen to the way Brahms moves beyond Bach’s initial fugue subject into soaring new territory.
This 1968 recording features Jacqueline du Pré and Daniel Barenboim:
- Brahms: Cello Sonata No. 1 in E minor, Op. 38, Jacqueline du Pré, Daniel Barenboim Amazon