The Kennedy Center

Sonatensatz (Scherzo in C minor from the F.A.E. Sonata)

About the Work

National Symphony Orchesra Composer Portraits - Johannes Brahms Composer: Johannes Brahms
© Dr. Richard E. Rodda

In April 1853, the twenty-year-old Johannes Brahms set out from his native Hamburg for a concert tour of Germany with the Hungarian violinist Eduard Reményi. The following month in Hanover they met the violinist Joseph Joachim, whom Brahms had heard give an inspiring performance of the Beethoven Concerto five years earlier in Hamburg. Brahms was at first somewhat shy in the presence of the celebrated virtuoso, but the two men warmed to each other when the young composer began to play some of his recent music at the piano. Before the interview was done, Joachim had been overwhelmed by his visitor: "Brahms has an altogether exceptional talent for composition, a gift which is further enhanced by the unaffected modesty of his character. His playing, too, gives every presage of a great artistic career, full of fire and energy.... In brief, he is the most considerable musician of his age that I have ever met." The following summer, Brahms and Joachim spent eight weeks at Göttingen, discussing music, studying scores, playing chamber works together and setting the foundation for a creative friendship that would last for almost half a century. Joachim learned of Brahms' desire to take a walking tour through the Rhine Valley, and he arranged a joint recital to raise enough money to finance the trip. Along with the proceeds of the gate, Joachim gave Brahms as a parting gift several letters of introduction, including one to Robert and Clara Schumann in Düsseldorf.

On the last day of September 1853, Brahms met the Schumanns for the first time. "Here is one of those who comes as if sent straight from God," Clara recorded in her diary. Brahms was introduced around town, and among those he befriended was the young composer and conductor Albert Dietrich, a favorite student of Schumann and a frequent visitor to his home. Joachim was scheduled for an appearance in Düsseldorf at the end of October to give the premiere of Schumann's Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra (Op. 131) as part of the Music Festival of the Lower Rhine, with the composer conducting. As a surprise for the violinist, Schumann, Dietrich and Brahms agreed to collaborate on a sonata for violin and piano, and then challenge Joachim to guess the respective authors of each movement. Dietrich was assigned the opening movement, Schumann volunteered an intermezzo and finale, and Brahms offered to supply the scherzo. They dubbed the project the "F.A.E." Sonata, after the phrase that Joachim had taken as his motto: Frei aber einsam ("Free but alone"). The music was finished quickly, assembled into a performing edition, and inscribed with a reversed-initial dedication: "In Expectation of the Arrival of an honored and beloved Friend." Joachim was delighted with the gift, played the entire Sonata through immediately with Clara at the keyboard, and correctly announced each movement's composer without a moment of hesitation. He kept the score for the rest of his life, and only in 1906, just a year before his death, did he finally allow Brahms' Scherzo to be published.

The Scherzo is Brahms' earliest extant piece for violin and piano, though he had already composed at least one full sonata for that instrumental combination that either he or Schumann lost on its way to the publisher. The piece ("good fun--and harmless," according to William Murdoch) follows the traditional three-part scherzo form, with a rather stormy C minor paragraph at the beginning and end surrounding a more lyrical central trio. Though written when Brahms was still very young, the music bears his characteristic qualities: rich harmonic vocabulary, insistent rhythmic vitality, a sure sense of motivic growth and full textures (sometimes, indeed, too full, since the violin cannot always compete in volume with the fistfuls of piano chords--it took Brahms a quarter of a century to solve this problem before returning to the violin and piano genre). Brahms' Scherzo was not only a charming memento of an important friendship, but was also further proof to Schumann that he had met a genius. On October 23, 1853, Schumann's article "New Paths" appeared in the widely read journal that he edited, Neue Zeitschrift für Musik ("New Journal for Music"). "I thought that sooner or later," he wrote, "someone would and must appear, destined to give ideal expression to the spirit of the times.... And he has come, a young blood at whose cradle Graces and Heroes kept watch. His name is Johannes Brahms." Brahms was famous from that day forward.