Movement 1: Allegro maestoso
Movement 2: Andante espressivo
Movement 3: Scherzo: Allegro energico
Movement 4: Intermezzo: Andante molto
Movement 5: Finale: Allegro moderato ma rubato
The first movement of the F minor Sonata has much the same feeling as this funeral march, the same sense of an unfolding drama enacted in a heavy 3/4 tempo which gains its force and character, if not from a single theme, then from a family of related rhythms and thematic shapes that dominate the entire movement. Though the outer form is straightforward, with a more-or-less literal recapitulation of the exposition and clear development and coda sections, the recurrent features give the movement an inexorable sense of growth—from the widely flung gestures of the opening, through the dour march that follows, the lyrical second theme with flowing accompaniment in A flat/D flat major, and even the ethereal reflections marked ‘pp dolce’ then ‘misterioso’ that preface the return of the opening.
That ethereal quality anticipates the mood of the ‘Andante espressivo’ slow movement (though it was composed earlier, as was its abbreviated recall as the fourth movement, marked ‘Rückblick’—‘Retrospect’). At least the first of these movements is apparently based on a poem, ‘Junge Liebe’ by C O Sternau, the opening of which Brahms adds at the head of his score, though noting only the poet, not the source.
Der Abend dämmert, das Mondlicht scheint
Da sind zwei Herzen in Liebe vereint
Und halten sich selig umfangen
Twilight falls, the moonlight shines,
Two hearts are united in love,
and keep themselves in bliss enclosed.
Brahms reflects this text in the mirroring of his intimate descending upper melody in the lower voice and by the atmospheric ‘ben cantando’ passage that follows, with its delicate gently repeated notes and almost unearthly chordal spacings in the upper register. But the mood changes. The passionate intensity to which the middle section grows from its ‘extremely soft and sweet’ opening in the new key of D flat major certainly suggests more than just an idyllic scene, especially when the repetition of the opening section in the tonic is followed by a seemingly new ‘Andante molto’, again in D flat and beginning ppp, which effects a huge coda that rises to triumphant intensity, the movement’s opening phrase reappearing in the final ‘Adagio’. Comparison with the second and third strophes of Sternau’s poem seems to confirm the source of this intensity, with its imagery of prolonged affection through a thousand kisses and of enraptured bliss lasting until dawn. (Indeed, a quite separate song by Friedrich Silcher has even been suggested as prompting the opening melodic shape and expressive character of the distinctive final section, a love song at midnight—‘steh’ ich in finst’rer Mitternacht’.)
The fourth movement ‘Andante molto’, now in the relative minor key to D flat, B flat minor, recalls the opening idea of the earlier movement as the basis of a funeral march with ominous timpani effects. This in turn has been attributed to a source in another of Sternau’s poems, ‘Bitte’ (‘Request’), that Brahms also noted for setting, though he does not identify it in his score; here, in contrast, the poet tells rather of a love grown cold like a withered tree or a barren forest. The title ‘Intermezzo’ is Brahms’s own and perhaps indicates its role in separating the third from the fifth movement (unless, that is, it is retained from an earlier context, a conception apart from the sonata), thus casting the scherzo as the central, rather than penultimate movement of the work.
With this scherzo, back in the tonic, the music now reveals a more uninhibited character than at any preceding point: the marking ‘Allegro energico’ signifies a sense of huge muscular swing and release of pent-up energy. In total contrast is the trio, again emphasizing D flat major, with its broad, tranquil, almost hymnic melody that steadily expands its range and strength until it can reincorporate the rhythm of the scherzo for its restatement.
The huge musical stature of the young Brahms is nowhere more clearly revealed than in his capacity to create a finale that both crowns and unifies the mighty contrasts that precede it. His chosen form is a rondo, where large contrasts complement the detailed working of ideas—the same principle of the contrast of the scherzo and the trio, yet here taken a step further. Like that of the first movement, the opening is not straightforward, but blends thematic statement with a sense of introduction, here rhythmically tense and anticipatory in character, waiting to explode into action. The first contrasting theme is in F major, and is surely a tribute to Brahms’s first great musician friend, met earlier in 1853, the violinist Joachim, being based on his thematic motto F-A-E (‘Frei aber Einsam’). The return of the opening takes on something of the ethereal aspects of the earlier movements before the original course is resumed. But this is no symmetrical rondo. The second contrasting theme now dominates what follows. Beginning in D flat major, now clearly established as the secondary tonality to F minor, rather than the more usual relative major key of A flat, a broad cumulative melody—a successor to the trio theme—permeates the recall of the first theme and finally becomes the subject of a two-stage coda, a coda to the work as well as to the movement; the theme even appears as an accompaniment to itself in shorter notes, in a feat of rhythmic excitement in the tonic major that represents the complete antithesis of the struggle with which the work began.
from notes by Michael Musgrave © 2001