Brahms Sonata Op. 120 No. 2 Program Notes

Brahms had all but retired from composing by the early 1890s and resolved to complete or burn his previously unfinished works. After hearing the notable clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld however, he decided to come out of retirement and then composed a series of four paramount works involving the clarinet. The incomparable Sonata in E-Flat major, Op. 120 No. 2 (1894) is the final piece in this series and is the last piece of chamber music Brahms ever composed. Throughout his career, Brahms held himself to an incredibly high standard as a successor to the grand Beethovenian tradition of composition rooted in Classicism. (In contrast, composers like Wagner and Liszt favored forward thinking programmatic music.) The purity of this tradition became even more distilled in the texturally uncomplicated and graceful nature of his late period. The E-flat sonata is remarkable for its relaxed ease of expression, reflective mood, and deep sonorities. Brahms recognized that these profound traits suit the viola as well as the clarinet and reissued both Op. 120 sonatas for the string instrument with slight register revisions. The first movement Allegro amabile is characterized by a carefree, singing and winding melody, the cells of which are embedded through the movement, and the second theme in this sonata form movement has a similar, relaxed feel. The blood pressure rarely rises beyond quick outbursts even in the development, leading to an overall mood of moderate contemplation. I find it thought-provoking that the clarinet/viola provides the bass in the last chord of the movement, which to me could signal acceptance of the weight of a burden being carried. The Allegro appassionato “fast” movement in E-flat minor seems to remember the passion of an earlier time rather than live it presently, and the hymn-like trio in B major (down a major third, a key relationship that screams Brahms) maintains an ethereal yet serious mood. The final Andante con moto contains a set of variations on a gracious flowing theme that maintains a melancholic, searching quality until it finally culminates in a robust and celebratory Allegro finale. Ultimately what makes this sonata so uniquely beautiful, and uniquely challenging, is the juxtaposition between a simple, classic construction and autumnal, enigmatic expressivity. I love imagining a mature Brahms reflecting on his full life with nostalgia while composing this late, great masterpiece.

Posted: Oct-31-2018
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