Welcome and Brahms

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Welcome to the School of the Arts (Sota) blog! Though existing for a few months now, this is the first real post, and I hope this page can be another window into events and ideas in Sota.

The fall semester is more than half finished by now, and we have had a good one. The Aughinbaugh art gallery had a strong start with Unembedded, photographs reflecting the effect of the war on ordinary Iraqi citizens. Theatre began their season with Bus Stop, and Dead Man Walking opens tonight. Many of our faculty and students provided the orchestra for the Harrisburg Opera’s delightful production of The Magic Flute, and opening concerts by the Symphony Orchestra, Jazz Bands, Symphonic Winds, and Wind Ensemble were outstanding.

Last Friday I enjoyed participating in a faculty chamber recital featuring the music of Brahms. Peter Sirotin and I performed the Brahms G Major Violin Sonata, then Peter was joined by Ya-Ting Chang on piano, and Michael Harcrow on horn for the Horn Trio. Is there more wonderful chamber music than this? A link to the performance is on the left (keep checking back here for links to more music from Messiah). I have always had a special love for the G Major Violin Sonata, so I am including the notes I wrote for the concert:

Brahms composed the Sonata in G major for piano and violin in 1878-79, at the same time that he was completing his Violin Concerto. He had written at least three earlier sonatas for piano and violin, but had destroyed them all, making this the first to be published. In a typically self-deprecating manner he announced the new sonata to his friend, the violinist Joachim, in a letter dated 22 June, 1879:

Dear Friend,
I very much hope to read the proofs of the concerto with you in Salzburg, and for recreation we can then also play a little sonata!

The “little” sonata runs just under thirty minutes in length, not long by Brahms’ standards, but certainly no feather-weight either. Brahms also intended the sonata for more than recreation. He inscribed a gift copy of the original edition with the openings of the G Major violin sonatas of Mozart and Beethoven, and above them quoted from Goethe’s Faust, “Come, rise to higher spheres!”

Perhaps the genesis of the work came from Brahms’ earlier song, Regenlied (Rain-song). The first part of the theme which opens the last movement of the violin sonata quotes the song quite literally. Even the accompaniment pattern, intended to suggest the sound of falling rain, is taken note for note into the sonata. The theme itself begins with a dotted eighth/sixteenth note rhythm. The same rhythm opens the first theme of the first movement as well, and continues to play a prominent role in every theme in the sonata, a unifying rhythmic motive that works its way through all three movements.

Brahms uses the expected forms: sonata form in the first movement, ternary, or three-part form in the second, and a rondo for the third. The second movement was written for Felix Schumann, youngest son of Robert and Clara Schumann, and a violinist. Felix Schumann died in 1879 at the age of twenty-five, and the middle section of the second movement erupts into a dramatic funeral march. When Brahms brings back the opening theme of the second movement near the end of the third, it is as though he wishes – perhaps through the washing of the rain? – to heal, or at least comfort, the deep wound of death.

The piece remains for me one of the miracle pieces, a piece of extraordinary meaning and beauty that is unique even for Brahms. Much can be said of unifying motives, of sources, of inventive development of materials, of the rich harmonic vocabulary, or the consummate voice-leading. Brahms’ compositional craftsmanship is extraordinary, but it tells only a small part of the story. The opening eight measure phrase alone is filled with a profound beauty that cannot be expressed in words, and the entire sonata sings of that beauty through a thousand permutations. The text of the song Regenlied reads in part:

Pour, rain, pour down,
Wake my old songs,
Which we sang in the doors,
When the drops pattered outside.
I want to listen to them again,
To their sweet, moist rushing,
To gently bedew my soul
With holy, child-like awe.

In its best moments this sonata captures a “holy, child-like awe” (frommen Kindergrauen), bringing together the simplicity and openness of childhood with an adult understanding of struggle and suffering. Of the three violin sonatas he published, it remained Brahms’ favorite, and it is no wonder that it did. Profoundly singing from the awe-filled simplicity of the opening phrase to the healing beauty of the final plagal cadence, it assures us, in its own non-verbal way, that our lives and sufferings have meaning and purpose. Brahms wrote no greater music, and it stands as an enduring miracle of the repertoire.
–Richard Roberson