C e l l o   S o n a t a   N o . 1   O p . 3 8
 b y   J o h a n n e s   B r a h m s

I . A l l e g r o   n o n   t r o p p o

Johannes Brahms (1833 - 1897) is without a doubt one of the most influential composers of the romantic period of classical music. Born in Hamburg, Germany, on May 7 1833, he grew up in the so-called "Gängeviertel", a poverty-stricken, slum-like area with "narrow crooked streets, [and] dilapidated, age-blackened 'frame' houses" (Geiringer, 14), under the guidance of two wonderful parents. Musical influence came early for young Johannes Brahms: his father, Jakob, was proficient on six instruments - violin, viola, 'cello, flute, horn, and contrabass - and was an active orchestral player for many years (though with rather modest success). More important than his skill at these instruments was Jakob Brahms' determination to have his son follow a career in music; as a young child, Jakob had shared similar dreams but found little support coming from his father, forcing Jakob to run away from home in order to fulfill his desire. It was certainly with much motivation coming from his own childhood experience that Jakob supported his son's musical education so emphatically.

Jakob Brahms was also his son's first teacher, and from the early days of his teachings, Johannes showed that he possessed extraordinary musical brilliance. His father gave him lessons in musical theory, but as it turned out, Brahms had subconsciously acquired much of this knowledge from listening to his father's playing and anticipated much of what his father was teaching. (Murdoch 21). These lessons were most likely given on either the violin or the 'cello, as the Brahms' family's did not possess a piano and little Johannes was too short to play the bass and too short breathed for the horn or flute.

When he was eight years old, Johannes was taken to study with Otto Cossel, a well-known pianist and student of Eduard Marxsen, himself a former student of many renowned pianists in Vienna and a friend of Schumann. Brahms was taught well: when at the age of ten he was brought to Eduard Marxsen for the purpose of becoming Marxsen's student, Marxsen refused the boy, saying that he would not be able to improve Brahms' current playing. (Murdoch 23). He did in the end accept Brahms (although insisting on sharing the student with Cossel) and when astonished by the pupil's immense creative power and talent also took it upon himself to teach Brahms the principles of the various forms of musical composition.

Another major influential experience occurred to Brahms at the age of fourteen, when he was invited to a small town near Hamburg by Adolph Giesemann, a friend of Brahms' father. Brahms was fascinated by the countryside outside of Hamburg, with wide fields of grass, the fresh air, and "the freedom from the restrictions of town enrivonment' (Murdoch 27). There was a choral society in the town where Brahms was staying, and recognizing the youngster's musical talent, Giesemann persuaded the choral society to invite Brahms to serve as their conductor. After some initial nervousness and hesitancy, Brahms proved to be such a good conductor that the choral society requested that he remains in that position for the duration of his visit. Brahms gladly accepted, and it was certainly to a large extent during this time that Brahms developed his later love for choral writing.

The Sonata in E minor for pianoforte and violoncello was not written until between 1862 and 1865 and is the first of only two sonatas for this combination of instruments. Although, according to Murdoch, "all musicians will agree that the No. 2 is a far finer work and a much bigger test for artistry and true musicianship" (322), "No. 1 is evidently preferred by 'cellists" (322) when frequency of performances is used as a measuring scale, and Ivor Keys calls it "unquestionably the first important cello sonata since Beethoven […] despite of the intermittent beauties of Chopin's and Mendelssohn's contributions" (58). It was dedicated to a good friend of Brahms', Dr. Josef Gänsbacher, professor of singing at the Vienna Singakademie and a hobby cellist, though not a very accomplished one. In fact, an anecdote is often told:

"In the course of [a private] performance [for an audience of friends] Brahms played so loud that the worthy Josef complained that he could not hear his cello at all - "Lucky for you, too", growled Brahms, and let the piano rage on." (Drinker, 81).

The piece itself contains three movements: Allegro non troppo; Allegretto quasi Menuetto; and Allegro. Originally, Brahms had written four movements to this sonata, with an Adagio completing the piece, but had decided to scrap it. Gänsbacher begged Brahms to show him this missing movement, but did so without success. There are speculations, however, as pointed out by Donald Ferguson, that the cancelled adagio is in fact the adagio of the second cello sonata, based on some critics' impression that in the second sonata, the second movement's structure "seems to belong to the 'sixties rather than the 'eighties" (Ferguson 182).

The first movement of the sonata (which I will be playing) - Allegro non troppo - starts out with a somber, sullen theme on the low C string of the cello. After eight measures, the melody switches to the brighter A-string, continually rising to a high point in the tenor register before descending and calming down in a scale like figure, after which the piano takes over the opening melody, albeit in a much higher region than the cello. A figure of interest in this opening theme is the semitone rise and fall in the second measure of the piece (B-C-B), a figure that, as H.C. Colles points out, "practically all the development of the idea dwells on" (28). We shall see later that this figure is indeed allured to many times.

After the brief repetition of the opening line and a brief series of arpeggios alternating between the piano and cello voices, the opening theme briefly returns in the C major key (although in a much more chromatic variation than in the opening), this time repeating the semitone step figure twice and accompanied by triplets in the piano part, resulting in more of a feeling of forward motion than in the beginning. In fact, when rehearsing the piece with my accompanist Michael Rutberg, I often found that we were speeding up in that passage because of this same feeling of being drawn forward. The end of this passage is marked by the repetition of a half note - quarter note - quarter note figure of falling octaves in the cello - another figure that returns quite often in the piece - and a foreshadowing towards the transitional melody to follow in the piano.

The second major theme is introduced in bar 58 after a transition in which the cello voice and the left hand of the piano continue the half note - quarter note - quarter note figure (with slurred quarter notes replacing some of the half notes). In bar 58, the piece has modulated to B minor, and the second theme of the piece here is described by Colles as "rhythmic arpeggio tossed combatively to and fro between the instruments, [which] rebels against the dark-toned suavity of the first theme […], but the dark-toned suavity prevails." (28). This theme also incorporates a 3/4 rhythm inside of the pieces 4/4 rhythm, something Drinker calls one of Brahms' "visiting cards" (82). As the first section of the movement comes to an end, the two instruments gradually calm down, returning to the serenity of the opening theme.

As previously mentioned, the development of the first opening theme concentrates much on the semitone step. The figure is immediately restated in measures 100 and 102 by the piano and in 101 by the cello; furthermore in measure 108, 109 and 110 by the piano. The following passage of wild falling arpeggios in the cello voice accompanied by slurred pairs of quarter notes starting on the offbeats in the piano part (a figure that in fact has appeared twice already in the 'cello part - in the conclusion of the first section, and in the beginning of the development) indicates the arrival of the climax of the development, which appears in 126 in the form of the second main theme from measure 58, here appearing in F minor and with switched roles for the cello and piano. A series of much more tranquil variations of this theme follows, ultimately leading into the recapitulation.

As expected, the recapitulation is very similar to the opening up until the restatement of the second theme, which this time is in E minor rather than in B minor as in the exposition. Finally, a peaceful coda ultimately leads to the ending of the piece on a E major cord, with the cello clearly in the role of the accompaniment by holding a G#.

Interestingly, several of the sources consulted for this paper mentioned the similarity of the sonata to pieces written by other composers. In the article "Brahms, op. 38; Piracy, Pillage, Plagiarism or Parody?" (published in Music Review Vol. 34, 1973), the author William Klenz maintains that "it was necessary for [Bernhard] Romberg to have written his Sonata in E minor before Brahms could have composed his E minor cello Sonata." (39). The author proceeds to make comparisons of key features between the Romberg op. 38 sonata and the greatly more sophisticated Brahms op. 38 sonata, ranging from the identical title and opus number to identical tempo markings and adoption of identical notes in key passages. Klenz also raises the question as to what might have been the motive for Brahms to make such allusions; of the ones proposed in the title (and they are certainly exaggerated in my opinion - in fact, my roommate, with whom I had a short discussion about this article suggested that the author merely "wanted to be printed"), parody is perhaps the most likely one. Perhaps this allusion to the less sophisticated piece was meant to remind one more time of his friend Gänsbacher's subpar 'cello playing abilities?

The other pieces that Brahm's sonata is claimed to bear resemblance to are Bach's Contrapuntus No. 3 and No. 13, both from Bach's Art of Fugue. In particular, Geiringer maintains that the main theme of the first movement is "closely related" (230) to No. 3, while the fugato theme of the third movement "is astonishingly like the 'Contrapunctus 13'" (230). However, no detailed comparisons are made.

However much the controversies might be about Brahm's sonata, it is beyond question that Brahms' sonata is a wonderful piece; while perhaps it might be true that Brahms found his inspiration for his sonata in Romberg's piece, Romberg's work is certainly to be ranked lower in terms of sophistication compared to Brahms' sonata. For me personally, the question about the true origin of the piece thus becomes irrelevant, for no matter what its source may be, it was Brahms' musical genius that produced its final form. Thus, when listening to the piece with its wonderfully sullen and relentlessly powerful melodies, I have no doubts to tribute of all of its grandeur to Brahms alone.


  1. Colles, H.C. The Chamber Music of Brahms. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1933.
  2. Drinker, Henry S. The Chamber Music of Johannes Brahms. Philadelphia: Elkan-Vogel Co., 1932.
  3. Ferguson, Donald. Image and Structure in Chamber Music. New York: Da Capo Press, 1977.
  4. Geiringer, Karl. Brahms - His Life and Work. 2nd Ed. London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd., 1948.
  5. Keys, Ivor. Brahms Chamber Music. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1974.
  6. Klenz, William. "Brahms, op.38; Piracy, Pillage, Plagiarism or Parody?" The Music Review 34 (1973): 39-50.
  7. MacDonald, Malcolm. Brahms. New York: Schirmer Books, 1990.
  8. Mason, Daniel Gregory. The Chamber Music of Brahms. New York: AMS Press, 1970.
  9. Murdoch, William. Brahms, with an analytical study of the complete pianoforte works. London: Rich & Cowan, 1933.
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