The Cello, Late and Soon

There is an anecdote of Brahms hearing Paderewski's violin sonata and telling its composer that it was not chamber music, but a "concert sonata". The distinction is an intriguing one; which of Brahms's own sonatas did he think fell on each side of that line?

This all came to mind the other day upon hearing Richard Strauss's cello sonata, which is emphatically a "concert sonata". As it is in the same key (F major) as Brahms's second cello sonata, which is also a concert sonata, and both works begin by giving the listener a hearty slap on the back, I thought that Strauss must have modelled his work on the Brahms, but then I began to wonder about the dates, inasmuch as Strauss was a bit of a prodigy, most of whose juvenilia are only played because of the celebrity that he attained later in life. The cello sonata is his Op. 6 and was composed in 1882; Brahms's sonata was written four years later, in 1886. Strauss was just beginning to stretch himself and to find his voice; Brahms, by comparison, was coasting. The immaturity of Strauss's work manifests in its repetitions, which work (if, for you, they do work) because the figures that he repeats are beginning to be characteristic and he is touchingly proud of them; whereas Brahms has reached a point where he can hardly be troubled to follow through on his excellent beginnings. We remember the very start, because it takes five or six bars before we can tell what the meter is; and we remember the start of the finale because of the play between E-flat and E natural; but neither of these ideas, each powerful enough to really stretch and grow the style, is fully exploited. Brahms's first cello sonata (1865) is a much more adventurous work, formally and rhetorically; we could wish that Saint-Saëns had known its middle movement, else he would not have dared the stupid preciosity of the minuet in his first cello concerto, written seven years later.