Violin Sonata No. 3

Johannes Brahms

Violin Sonata No. 3 in D minor

Op. 108

Recommended recording

Curated by Guy Jones, Head of Curation

About this work

Johannes Brahms began his Sonata for piano and violin No. 3 in D minor, Op. 108, almost immediately after finishing the Sonata No. 2 in A major, Op. 100, during a vacation in Thun in the summer of 1886, but he set the work aside for two years and completed it only when he returned to Thun in 1888 for another vacation. The two works are in fact utterly different from one another: the A major Sonata is easygoing and radiates with warm melody from start to finish, while the D minor Sonata is an athletic, fibrous, and at times even nervous affair that offers drama of a far more epic nature. Brahms dedicated the Sonata No. 3 to Hans von Bülow, pianist, conductor, friend, and champion of the composer; it was first performed by Brahms and violinist Jenö Hubay in Budapest on December 22, 1888.

Brahms returns to the four-movement sonata design in the D minor Violin Sonata (he had combined two movements into one in the A major Sonata to make a three-movement piece). At the Sonata's opening a lean violin melody rides atop sinister (or nearly so) syncopated broken octaves in the piano; both that theme and those octaves will generate nearly everything that we hear in the Allegro first movement -- even the warmer second theme owes its identity to the recurring dotted figure of the first theme. The development of the movement is nothing short of astonishing: the entire thing unfolds over a dominant pedal that seems to grow ever more ominous but then, in one of the work's truly shining moments, suddenly grows incandescent to lead the way into the recapitulation.

The Adagio in D major is truly a lied without words, deeply resonant and richly melodic. The scherzo movement -- Un poco presto e con sentimento -- is an ingenious piece of workmanship, elegantly scored and flawlessly balanced but of a somewhat mysterious character: Clara Schumann described it as "like a lovely girl playing with her lover," while others have heard melancholy or even bitterness in it. The Sonata's most turbulent and obviously dramatic music is reserved for the final Presto agitato movement.