Brahms’ Violin Sonata No. 3 in D Minor: Tempestuous and Dramatic

With the symphonies and other large-scale works behind him, Johannes Brahms was at the height of his artistic maturity when, during the summer of 1886, he composed the Violin Sonata No. 3 in D minor, Op. 108. The last of Brahms’ violin sonatas, Op. 108 is also the most tempestuous and dramatic. Unfolding in four movements rather than three, it is set in the turbulent key of Beethoven’s monumental Ninth Symphony and Brahms’ First Piano Concerto and Tragic Overture.

Inexplicably, the composer withheld the publication until 1888, when it was premiered in Budapest with violinist Jenő Hubay and Brahms at the piano. The score was dedicated to Hans von Bülow, the conductor and pianist who was one of the most dedicated champions of Brahms’ music.

The first movement (Allegro) begins as a nervous sotto voce. Commentator Orrin Howard observed,

The dominant elements of the movement are very nearly all contained within the first four measures: three ideas in the violin – an ascending fourth, a falling eighth-note figure, and a long-held note followed by a quick note – and, the fourth, the piano’s accompanying line in staggered (thus restless) single notes an octave apart. It is these highly concentrated motifs, so mysterious in their first appearances, which are put through a huge variety of compositional and emotional transformations.

The development section unfolds over a haunting “A” pedal tone in the piano—something akin to the persistent timpani beats in the opening of Brahms’ First Symphony—while the violin engages in mysterious bariolage bowing figures. In the final moments, the first theme returns, this time transformed into a majestic D major amid a sudden flood of sunshine.

The second movement (Adagio) has been described as a cavatina, or simple through-composed song. Moving to D major, it begins as a dignified, nostalgic slow waltz in 3/8 time. It is a tender song without words, yet it ventures into shadowy and passionate territory.

The third movement (Un poco presto e con sentimento) takes the form of a brief intermezzo. It is an anxious, yet delicate, scherzando in F-sharp minor. The piano takes centerstage, with embellishing double stops in the violin which return later in the movement as pizzicati. Only briefly does a ray of sunshine fall, with a sudden, childlike shift to major.

The stormy final movement (Presto agitato) begins with the driving triplet rhythm of a tarantella. The second theme is a chorale, with distant echoes of Brahms’ First Piano Concerto. In the coda section, the tarantella, which continuously breaks off with a pause throughout the movement, is resolved with a stern, resounding D minor chord in the piano. The final tumultuous bars surge to a passionate conclusion.

I. Allegro:

II. Adagio:

III. Un poco presto e con sentimento:

IV. Presto agitato:

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About Timothy Judd

A native of Upstate New York, Timothy Judd has been a member of the Richmond Symphony violin section since 2001. He is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music where he earned the degrees Bachelor of Music and Master of Music, studying with world renowned Ukrainian-American violinist Oleh Krysa.

The son of public school music educators, Timothy Judd began violin lessons at the age of four through Eastman’s Community Education Division. He was a student of Anastasia Jempelis, one of the earliest champions of the Suzuki method in the United States.

A passionate teacher, Mr. Judd has maintained a private violin studio in the Richmond area since 2002 and has been active coaching chamber music and numerous youth orchestra sectionals.

In his free time, Timothy Judd enjoys working out with Richmond’s popular SEAL Team Physical Training program.

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