Discussing the 1st movement of Brahms E minor Sonata

For The Strad magazine - August 1991

The Brahms E minor Sonata is perhaps the first truly great romantic sonata for cello and piano. Although Beethoven in his 5 sonatas had already shown a mastery at composition for cello and piano, Brahms had only the example of 2 Mendelssohn sonatas and the Chopin sonata to lead the way in romantic writing and he dismissed the Chopin sonata from his short list of influences! Never the less, Brahms went on to write two great works for cello and piano; the first, in E minor, completed over a three year period, proved universally popular.

I first studied the E minor sonata when I was just 10 years old and although many of the technical problems were beyond me, I was captured by the powerful romantic passion of the music and the brooding intensity of the lush cello writing. Brahms so brilliantly uses the cello to convey his deeper feelings

Although the following performance analysis of the movement appear very detailed, these details should be used solely to construct a flow of musical ideas that you can communicate simply and directly to your audience.

Lets start now, taking into consideration that the audience knows not what to expect!

You are given a serious,long, melodic and espressivo theme to play. (Ex.1) Marked piano and written low on the instrument, it develops using a small crescendo but diminuendos to a soft and poignant end. The shape is perfect: an arched phrase, and combined with the dark cello tones, it leaves the audience in no doubt of the movement's character.

But how can you best put these ideas into action?

The placing of the first note must be anticipated by a deep and slow breath, a breath that physically prepares you to create a dark and drawn sound. It will also help to create the right atmosphere for your partner and the audience. On contact of the bow on the string, concentrate on producing a fine, continuous sound without bulges, paying particular attention to the details of dots and lines which Brahms uses to articulate
his opening phrase. Your vibrato will colour the sound but it should be more no than a colouring. The hushed atmosphere and the off-beat piano chords indicate a subtle inclination towards excitement. Try a reasonably fast vibrato but of small enough oscillation not to interfere with the purity of the general sound. The bow is your means of producing sound. Experiment with the contact and speed of the bow so that you are in complete control of the vibration of the string; You should be able to feel the vibration of the string in your right hand through the heel of the bow - this necessitates a relaxed and sensitive bow hold! My suggestion is that you need only use half your bow for the first few bars and start to expand its use during the crescendo, reducing it again in the diminuendo. 

This technique for altering the volume of sound is too rarely used in cello playing and is often mistakenly replaced by the use of bow pressure which alters the quality and not necessarily the quantity of sound. 

During this opening passage, you must also be constantly aware of the pianist placing off beat chords, perhaps in the hope of convincing you that you are misplacing your barlines! Actually, this "opposition" idea is the seed for many of the most exciting and dramatic sections in this movement.

Continuing on to the second phrase, you see that it has moved from the dark lower registers to the brightness of the A string. The piano continues its pattern unchanged but the cello projects an all together happier mood. The simplicity of Brahms' writing shows itself so clearly here. The sound that you produce on the A string will naturally be considerably more penetrating than the lower strings used in the first phrase, but because Brahms marks piano dolce (and not piano espressivo as before) it is necessary to adapt the sound to fit the situation. A flautando bow stroke (a little pressure and a fair amount of movement) to soften and free the sound would be most appropriate, allowing you the space for a dynamic build-up of great intensity and passion leading to the climax of the phrase, beautifully high in the cello's register. The piano leaves you entirely alone just after the climax and Brahms seems to ignore the expected phrase length, insisting that you continue unabated at full intensity. It is during this build-up that you must abandon your inhibitions, breath with increasing depth and allow your physical movements the freedom to transmit weight and natural strength from the centre of your body through to the cello string. Feel the body of the cello vibrate. Do not clamp the instrument between your legs or grasp at the bow; this will restrict the vibrations and you will find yourself working harder to no avail.

The phrase gradually descends but you must continue the intensity through the diminuendo and into the new section where the piano takes its turn in expressing the opening theme. The counter melody you are now playing introduces the first triplet rhythm of the sonata, and again it is in opposition to the piano. Brahms asks for clear articulation in this passage and as the dynamic is piano, the bow should actually stop before the separated triplet of each group. 

Rather than completing the opening theme, the piano expands the arpeggiated passage with crescendo to forte and the cello breaks in a bar later with a similar phrase. (Ex.2) 

Here Brahms demonstrates how magnificently he can use the cello's power and range. Against the piano's powerful chords, the cello enters more than one octave below the piano and immediately the line strides upward to a dramatic leap into the higher register of the A string. Use just a third of the bow for the first note and more bow through the crescendo. A slight portamento slide to join the huge interval leap to the climax of this phrase will demonstrate the large distance between two notes in a relevant and exciting way. (I should say at this point tat I believe strongly that audible slides or shifts on the cello should be avoided unless they expressively enhance a melody or line of music). After this, the cello takes a low espressivo line, still well articulated and in forte. Just before we reach a new piano dolce section in C major, there is another dramatic crescendo that quickly tails away. This relative major section is very similar to the beginning of the movement but because of the major key, it is more relaxed and should therefore be played with a warmer vibrato and a less restricted bow stroke. There are also expressive but not dramatic hair pins that add to the romantic quality of the passage. The music now takes on much longer lines, building to a powerful one bar repeated pattern that includes repeated crotchets. (Ex.3) 

Again, Brahms writes clear articulation markings and to define these repeated notes, great care must be taken to separate them so that the piano's flying triplets do not obscure the rhythm. Brahms is unrelenting in his passion over these and the next few lines, pitting cello and piano against each other, but always in complete harmony. There must be no delay in the forward movement of this section. Even the smallest indulgence will destroy the heightened intensity and pounding strength of the music. Play with an open and strong sound, with full bows and a free vibrato, not forgetting the sense of the music flowing forward. Again, pay great attention to the phrase markings as they should be taken as "sound punctuation marks". In the following passage, (Ex.4) a slight lift before starting each new bow will give the necessary clarity to the pattern that alternates with the piano.

It is these articulation details used in both the cello and the piano that make a perfect balance between the two instruments at all times. If these details are ignored, the sound merges and the music and musicians are swamped! The cello finishes this section in full swing, leaving the piano to continue with a dramatic fortepiano chord that creates a new and hushed mood. The cello joins in later into a phrase pattern that is identical to the section used in Ex.4, but this time it is piano and should be played with a clear and focussed sound - not too much bow movement and a contact quite close to the bridge. The vibrato should be fast and compact. There is then a diminuendo that leads to the first pianissimo section of the movement. (Ex.5) A new atmosphere need to be created and this can be achieved by a bow stroke over the fingerboard and a vibrato that only becomes audible at the peak of the small hairpin.

At no time should the sound be without character or finesse. We are now entering the most tender and delicate part of the movement which is a bridge passage to the development section (or repeated exposition). The two bars that proceed it are to be used very carefully as a preparation, for there needs to be a physical change in order to play the new pianissimo section with the utmost beauty. The first of these two preparation bars (marked with a * in Ex.6) is an ending note for the passage before but is also the support note for the piano's two note phrase. This note should be like a soft brush stroke that allows the cello to resonate gently. In the next bar, there is a two note chord that comes at the peak of a hairpin in the piano's right hand tied note! I haven't yet played with a pianist who has managed to make a hairpin on a single held note so it seems only fair to help them out a little by playing the chord with a small stress, still with the brush-stroke type bow movement.

The bridge passage has an accompaniment based on a two note falling fifth figure - always awkward on a stringed instrument - with which the piano plays a beautiful and happy tune derived from material used earlier in the movement. The cello joins the piano's base line (although one beat later) and creates a light background colour with a flowing movement. This calls for a light and moving bow stroke of only two thirds length with a small breath between each bow. This will also assist the pianist in his/her espressivo pianissimo line. a continuous but gentle small vibrato will soften your line and match the piano's bass line. A few bars later when the cello plays the espressivo tune, Brahms writes a more chromatic version that is yearning and heartfelt. (Ex.7) This should still be played in a true pianissimo, but the sense of restraint should be almost unbearable. A haunting sound must be produced by a gentle bow pressure that restricts the volume and focuses the sound just enough to tear delicately at the heart strings. The vibrato should be continuous and complimentary - like the purest of sopranos. But only two bars of this bliss is allowed. Brahms tells us to play dolce again and all the tension dissipates leaving us with the happiness that started this short bridge section. A long falling passage with a diminuendo closes the first half of the movement with the piano alone.

As I send this off to London, I can highly recommend that you continue working on the rest of this wonderful sonata in a similar vein and I am only sorry that space and time do not allow me to continue with you.

publicationsRobert Cohen