The Kennedy Center

Sonata No. 3 in D minor, Op. 108

About the Work

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

Brahms was inspired by his first trip to Italy, in the early months of 1878, to write his glowing and autumnal Piano Concerto in B-flat major. He returned to Goethe's "land where the lemon trees grow" six times thereafter for creative inspiration and refreshment from the chilling Viennese winters. On his way back to Austria from Italy in May 1879, he stopped in the lovely village of Pörtschach on Lake Wörth in Carinthia, which he had haunted on his annual summer retreat the preceding year. "I only wanted to stay there for a day," he wrote to his friend the surgeon Theodor Billroth, "and then, as this one day was so beautiful, for yet another. But each day was as fine as the last, and so I stayed on. If on your journeys you have interrupted your reading to gaze out of the window, you must have seen how all the mountains round the lake are white with snow, while the trees are covered with delicate green." Brahms succumbed to the charms of the Carinthian countryside, and abandoned all thought of returning immediately to Vienna - he remained in Pörtschach for the entire summer. It was in that halcyon setting that he composed his Sonata No. 1 for Violin and Piano.

Brahms had long been wary of the difficulty in combining the lyrical nature of the violin with the powerful chordal writing that he favored for piano, and it was only with the Klavierstücke, Op. 76, completed in 1878, that he developed a keyboard style lean enough to accommodate the violin as a partner. His other two violin sonatas followed within nine years. The First Sonata is a voluptuously songful and tenderly expressive testament to this important advance in Brahms' creative development, the musical counterpart of his sylvan holiday at Pörtschach.

The Sonata is, throughout, warm and ingratiating, a touching lyrical poem for violin and piano. The main theme of the sonata-form first movement, sung immediately by the violin above the piano's placid chords, is a gentle melody lightly kissed by the Muse of the Viennese waltz. Its opening dotted rhythm (long-short-long) is used as a motto that recurs not just in the first movement but later as well, a subtle but powerful means of unifying the entire work. The subsidiary theme, flowing and hymnal, is structured as a grand, rainbow-shaped phrase. The Adagio has a certain rhapsodic quality that belies its tightly controlled three-part form. The piano initiates the principal theme of the movement, which is soon adorned with little sighing phrases by the violin. The central section is more animated, and recalls the dotted rhythm of the previous movement's main theme; the principal theme returns in the violin's double stops to round out the movement. Brahms wove two songs from his Op. 59 collection for voice and piano (1873) into the finale: Regenlied ("Rain Song" - this work is sometimes referred to as the "Rain" Sonata) and Nachklang ("Reminiscence"). The movement is in rondo form, and, in its scherzando quality, recalls the finale of the B-flat Piano Concerto, written just a year before. Most of the movement (whose main theme begins with the familiar dotted rhythm) is couched in a romantic minor key (it turns brighter during one episode for a return of the theme from the second movement, played in double stops by the violin), but moves into a luminous major tonality for the coda.