So what might have prompted a 30-year-old musician trained for the life of a church organist and choir director to compose his first violin sonata?
With Brahms and his sonata-movement contributed to the “F.A.E. Sonata,” you've already read about his meeting Robert Schumann and how Schumann essentially launched the young composer's career. (Another game of “What If...?” would be to consider how that might have gone had Schumann not been dealing with health issues that would completely incapacitate his creativity at the end of his career.) This initial contact and support cannot be underestimated in Brahms' subsequent development.
|Student Fauré, aged 19|
(We may smile thinking Schumann was considered “contemporary music” as we normally imagine the term, but at the time he'd only been dead five years; Wagner's Tannhäuser and Lohengrin would have been included but three newer operas, already composed by 1861, would not be premiered until years later; Liszt would have been known by any number of his famous tone poems, the Faust and Dante Symphonies, and numerous piano pieces from the Hungarian Rhapsodies to the B Major Sonata. Why not Brahms? In 1861, Brahms was not yet the acclaimed composer he would soon become: 1861 was the year he completed the first two piano quartets which you might have heard at the first of Market Square Concerts' Summermusic 2019).
To Fauré, then in his mid-teens, it was all a tantalizing discovery, this music that could be written outside the rules and regulations they were being taught in their classes.
When he graduated, Fauré became an organist in Brittany where after four years he was asked to leave, having sneaked out during the sermons for a smoke a few too many times and once showing up for mass still dressed in evening clothes having danced all night at a local ball. During this time, Saint-Saëns had urged him to continue composing – he had, after all, completed the Cantique de Jean Racine before graduation – but nothing survives, most likely pieces suitable for church services.
Eventually, after returning to Paris and seeing action during the Franco-Prussian War (during which the Emperor, Napoleon III, was overthrown). Later, he became choirmaster under the organist Charles-Marie Widor at Saint-Sulpice, one of Paris' major churches. Again, he wrote mostly utilitarian pieces for the services there, but few of these survive as well. Even during the war, when Saint-Saëns and Franck were writing elegies and patriotic odes, Fauré composed mostly songs with a more somber tone, but otherwise seemed not to be touched by the events of daily life.
Fauré attended the salon gathered around Saint-Saëns and there met other composers. He became involved in the founding of the “National Music Society” (it sounds so much better in French but then everything does), intent on rejuvenating a sense of national pride and identity following the disastrous war with Prussia. And then, in 1874, he became Saint-Saëns' assistant at the Madeleine Church, musically the most significant of Paris' cathedrals (many people went there because of the music), and later became the choir director there under Saint-Saëns' eventual successor in 1877.
|Gabriel Fauré in 1875|
Now, when I'd discuss something like “what influenced Fauré to write his first violin sonata” (ah, what heady conversations we musicians have!), someone would probably say, “well, obviously he was modeling it on Saint-Saëns' sonata” or maybe Cesar Franck's (“I'll take French Violin Sonatas of the Late-19th Century for $100, Alex”). Unfortunately, when you point out Fauré completed his sonata in 1876 and Saint-Saëns wrote his in 1885, and Franck wrote his in 1886, their argument falls apart. (If you're curious, Brahms' first violin sonata to survive and be published didn't appear until 1879.)
On the other hand, in 1874 Pauline Viardot composed a Sonatine for Violin and Piano, the year before Fauré began his. I would imagine, as happened with so many musicians' salons, it would have been performed as part of the expected musical entertainment.
Without knowing what Mme Viardot's Sonatine was like – this should give you an idea – it's doubtful it would've had any stylistic influence on the young Fauré. But certainly someone – perhaps Marianne? – might have said to him after its performance, “you're a composer, you should write one of your own.”
And the joyous, light-hearted mood of Fauré's sonata might indeed have been inspired by the circumstances of being a part of the Viardot salon. Sometimes a composer needs little else to boost his self-confidence to find the necessary inspiration for his own abilities than a sense of acceptance, belonging. And of course, if he was in love with the hostess' daughter...? Composers have done less to gain a girl's attention (and then there was Berlioz and his Symphonie fantastique, but I digress...)
By the way, it wasn't until 1877 – after the sonata's successful premiere in January and officially becoming the choirmaster at the Madeleine Cathedral in March – that Fauré got up the nerve to ask permission to marry Marianne and received the family's blessing (perhaps the new-found creative success helped boost his self-esteem in other ways?). They became engaged in July, but unfortunately, without giving him any reason, Marianne broke off the engagement in October, leaving Fauré devastated.
You might think – as many listeners have – that the slow movement of the work he was composing at the time, the Piano Quartet No. 1, is a reflection of his mental state after, well, as he saw it, being dumped; that he wrote into this music all the heartache he had just experienced. While some composers certainly might have done something like that, this was not Fauré's style, wallowing in sorrow and self-pity: after all, in a short time he was composing the piano quartet's delightful scherzo and lively finale, so...?
Let's look at another degree of separation, here: in 1870, Pauline Viardot had sung the world premiere of the Alto Rhapsody of Johannes Brahms. He dedicated it as a wedding gift to Julie Schumann, Robert and Clara's daughter, with whom Brahms was working up the courage to declare his love when her mother announced the “good news” Julie was now engaged to an Italian count! It's a dark and desolate work inspired by unrequited love ending with the hope of consolation for the weary traveler – hardly a “bridal song,” as Brahms described it to Clara – but that's a long story and, as a direct consequent of the happy world of the Liebeslieder Waltzes, I'll save that for our May performance. Regardless, given Brahms' experiences in the spring of 1869, there's an irony, here, in what happened to Fauré regarding his engagement to Viardot's daughter eight years later.
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And now, to open the second half of the program, a short work that's a transcription of one of Fauré's songs, Les berceaux (“The Cradles”) which is a wonderful example of the composer's effortless simplicity and perfection.
First of all, listen to this recording by English tenor Ian Bostridge:
Le long du quai les grands vaisseaux, / Que la houle incline en silence, / Ne prennent pas garde aux berceaux / Que la main des femmes balance.
Mais viendra le jour des adieux, / Car il faut que les femmes pleurent, / Et que les hommes curieux / Tentent les horizons qui leurrent.
Et ce jour-là les grands vaisseaux, / Fuyant le port qui diminue, / Sentent leur masse retenue / Par l’âme des lointains berceaux.
(René-François Sully-Prudhomme, from Stances et poèmes: 1865)
Along the quay the great ships, / Listing silently with the surge, / Pay no heed to the cradles / Rocked by women’s hands.
But the day of parting will come, / For it is decreed that women shall weep, / And that men with questing spirits / Shall seek enticing horizons.
And on that day the great ships, / Leaving the dwindling harbour behind, / Shall feel their hulls held back / By the soul of the distant cradles.
(trans: Richard Stokes, A French Song Companion Oxford, 2000)
The simplicity and subtlety is typical of Fauré: he sets up an accompaniment in the piano, the rocking rhythms of ships in the harbor (without reading the poem, you sense quite literally cradle-like rocking) but against this and despite the poet Prudhomme's verbal rhythms, Fauré spins out a melody with subtle contradictions. Though published in 1882, the year you often see associated with it, it was actually composed in 1879, about two years after the premiere of the violin sonata and not too long after the end of his engagement.
There are various arrangements of the song available for different instruments. Here is violinist Artur Grumieux:
At less than three minutes, it's hardly a substantial offering on a “sonata program,” of sorts, but the effect of it, like those “palate cleansers” between the main courses of a fine meal, will be magical.
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And so we come to the final work on the program, the third (and final) of Brahms' violin sonatas, not counting however many of them he might have composed or sketched, discarded then destroyed since the days before he'd met Schumann 33 years earlier.
While I'd written a good deal about Brahms and his friends over the summer – and of course I would highly recommend them to you – I'd mention a little anecdote from Jan Swafford's excellent and frequently quoted biography:
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Among friends, Brahms in his fifties was jolly and joking as always, if still capable of galling insults inadvertent and otherwise. Strangers and hangers-on he held at bay, skillfully keeping the trials of fame from becoming a nuisance. Widmann noted the cunning with which he prevented lady pianists from gaining the bench to play for him. He was equally adept at evading autograph hounds, including the ones who asked him to sign for phony packages.
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In 1886, having finished his 4th Symphony the year before, Brahms was spending his summer composing holiday in Thun, Switzerland, where he worked on the 2nd Cello Sonata, both the 2nd and 3rd Violin Sonatas, the 3rd Piano Trio, and several songs which became the collections of Op.104 and 105, including one of his most ingratiating, “Wie Melodien zieht es mir.”
The songs were primarily intended for his friend Hermine Spies whose alto voice (if nothing else) Brahms found captivating (he wrote to his friend Kalbeck that summer, “I am now getting to the years where a man easily does something stupid, so I have to doubly watch myself” and he once more trotted out his tattered old joke about two things he'd vowed never to try: opera and marriage).
The mood of these lyrical, leisurely songs pervade the 2nd Violin Sonata whose opening theme bears a slight if uncanny resemblance to the opening notes of the “Prize Song” from Wagner's Meistersinger but while motives from at least three of his own songs figure prominently in the course of this tuneful sonata, it's hardly likely Wagner would have won a claim of plagiarism if he'd thought about it (there are, after all, only so many notes to go around).
Fast forward to the summer of 1888, by which time Brahms had completed no less than 31 songs as well as the Double Concerto, managing to patch up the painful break in his friendship with Joachim. But in the course of the year he had also alienated two of his closest friends, Pastor Widmann from his 1886 summer holiday, and Dr. Theodor Billroth. The 4th Symphony and the Double Concerto had failed to please even his closest musical friends – as for the ebullient 2nd Cello Sonata, a teenaged Arnold Schoenberg was not the only one in Vienna who found the opening “indigestible” – and Brahms was beginning to fear in his mid-50s he had written himself out.
Fortunately, when he sent his beloved Clara Schumann the newly completed D Minor Violin Sonata, she responded with her usual warmth and approval: on occasions when she was critical, it was quite possible that piece of music would never see the light of day again.
“I marveled at the way everything is interwoven, like fragrant tendrils of the vine. I loved very much indeed... the third movement which is like a beautiful girl sweetly frolicking with her lover – then suddenly in the middle of it all, a flash of deep passion, only to make way for sweet dalliance once more.”
It would be impossible not to read too much into these passages: Clara, the widow of a true Romantic, was always one to see music in picturesque images befitting her husband's penchant for writing “character pieces” which always bore evocative titles implying a story or a character behind the music. Brahms – and for that matter, Fauré as well – wrote short piano pieces, true, but they were always given abstract names with no programmatic implications. Whether this music was inspired by such thoughts or memories or ways of, perhaps, capturing a mood, we'll never know.
However, time is running out to post this before the recital, so between my incapacitating cold (you might want to back away from the screen) and infuriating computer issues, there's not enough time to get into some of the biographical details I wanted to explore – specifically the idea of "Fate" as an element in so many of his works, including this sonata, especially in the middle-section of the first movement with its ominous ostinato in the bass; and also the observation that D Minor was, for Brahms, his Tragic Key – but then no one really reads these, anyway.
So here are not one but two videos of the Brahms sonata:
Peter Sirotin suggested two historic recordings, one with Jascha Heifetz and William Kappell from 1950 – monaural and perhaps not the best balanced miking; the other with the 1960 stereo recording with violinist Henryk Szeryng and pianist Artur Rubinstein. But since it was difficult to choose, I decided to leave the decision up to you (or, if you have the time, listen to both of them).
Let's begin with Szerynbg and Rubinstein (1960 stereo).
And here is Jascha Heifetz and William Kappell (1950 monaural):
I will point out, for those interested in historical connections and anyone who enjoys playing “Six Degrees of Separation,” Rubinstein, born ten years before Brahms died, had played for Josef Joachim when he was a child, and Joachim was the violinist for whom Brahms composed his Violin Concerto and the Double Concerto, as well as the early “F-A-E” Sonata. When Joachim heard the boy play, he told his parents, "This boy may become a very great musician—he certainly has the talent for it... When the time comes for serious study, bring him to me, and I shall be glad to supervise his artistic education." Rubinstein was 4 at the time. When he was 10, Joachim arranged for him to study with Karl Heinrich Barth who was a student of Franz Liszt who'd studied as a child with Carl Czerny who was a piano student of Ludwig van Beethoven's.
(I should point out that one of Rubinstein's pupils was Ann Schein who played Chopin and Rachmaninoff concertos with the Harrisburg Symphony in recent seasons and who has been a teacher, mentor and friend to both Ya-Ting Chang and Peter Sirotin, the directors of Market Square Concerts.)
- Dick Strawser