Token Creek Chamber Music

Program II


Saturday, August 24, 4:00 P.M.
Sunday, August 25, 4:00 P.M.

Tickets: General Admission $32 / Student $12


Regenlied, Op. 57 No. 3 Brahms Sonata for Violin and Piano in G major, Op. 78 Sonata for Cello and Piano in E minor, Op. 38 Quartet for Piano and Strings in C minor, Op. 60

Program Notes

Brahms is the only composer whose complete catalogue of chamber music is still in constant use. This is due to his fastidious high standards (he was capable of deleting and even attempting to eradicate evidence of pieces he did not choose to retain). But it is more attributable to his ideal temperament for music played by smaller groups of players.

When Mrs. Roy Disney, the main funder of Los Angeles’ Gehry-designed downtown music palace, was told they would like to include within it a space for chamber music, she inquired “Is that not what everyone plays?” That is as good a definition as we have. Brahms designed chamber music in an unusual variety of combinations, from duo to a Serenade requiring a dozen players. His large-choral and symphonic output is small compared to the great variety of his chamber music, requiring as it does everything from the most muted private conversation to the most passionate and revealing passages he ever composed.

No discussion of Brahms takes place without engaging with the most important person in his life, Clara Schumann. She is involved with all three pieces on our first program. In the middle 1850s, in the miserable aftermath of the repression of his feelings for Clara (an aftermath never fully transcended), Brahms takes his first crack at what becomes the Piano Quartet in C minor, a piece that retains its distinctive charge of unresolvable emotion even when he returns to finish it twenty years later. (When he sends it to his publisher he says, “On the cover you must have a picture, namely a head with a pistol to it.”)

In 1866, at age 33, with the Piano Quartet still awaiting the composer’s return, Brahms began the E minor cello sonata while on a short vacation with his friend and fellow composer Albert Dietrich, Clara also close by taking the waters. By then they had somewhat resolved at least some of the intensity of their earlier relationship, she was subject to his alternation between sensitive concern and rather rough, testing banter. Still her comment, after that summer, to their mutual friend Joseph Joachim: “He made life with him almost unbearable.”

By 1879, the year of the composition of the Violin Sonata in G major (and also of his Violin Concerto) Brahms had reached, with Clara, a stable key for their deep friendship, lasting as such for the rest of their lives. Recent research, the discovery in 1988 of a lost letter from Johannes to Clara, with the beginning of the slow movement of this sonata copied out meticulously on the reverse side by the composer, has shown that this middle movement may have been his first thoughts on this sonata. In the letter Brahms expresses his worry about the health of his godson Felix Schumann, Clara and Robert Schumann’s violin-playing second son, who died of tuberculosis while the letter was in the mail. In the letter Brahms asks Clara to play the music over very slowly. An unusual feature of this movement is the appearance of a slow-motion march as second idea, whose rhythm (but not its character) sharply resembles the more obvious “generating” motive of the sonata, which comes from Brahms’ song “Regenlied” (“Rainsong”), already a favorite of Clara.

The closeness of these two great musicians is evident throughout their lifelong collaboration, but never more than in this sonata, apparently one of the purest and most spontaneous compositions in the chamber music literature.

— Notes by John Harbison
Artistic Co-Director, Token Creek Chamber Music Festival