by Paul Berry
Correspondence shows that
Brahms might well have considered the sonata's overarching trajectory
a direct complement to [Clara's] current mood. Two letters
addressed to him survive from the months between Felix's death and
the release of the complete work in manuscript form. Both conveyed
clear evidence of ongoing sorrow, along with direct attempts to
resist depression. May of 1879 found Clara guardedly optimistic, at
least insofar as she was willing to admit to Brahms: “I often feel
the clouds draw near my spirit, but they do not burst—I am
constantly on the lookout.” The following month brought a return to
darker ruminations. The immediate trigger was a depressing report
concerning her eldest son, Ludwig, whom she had committed to a mental
institution nine years prior, but her youngest still weighed heavily
on her mind as well. She compared the two explicitly in a letter
dated June 21: “Such a poor, miserable man lives on now, and the
other, the intellectually gifted, to whom life stood open with all
its attractions, dies. Why?” Within days of receiving Clara's
brutally honest question, Brahms mailed her the complete version of
the violin sonata. At the time, any new opus would surely have
provided a welcome distraction regardless of genre, form, or mood.
Given its allusive gestures and the curve of its unfolding, however,
this particular work could also stir up and redirect the emotions of
the moment in specific and positive ways. Like the allusive songs
that Brahms had fashioned for Clara earlier in the 1870s, Op. 78
ultimately offered equipment for living as well as grist for
performance or contemplation For a mind and body properly attuned to
their appeal, musical structure and extramusical correlates could
redirect the melancholic cast of present circumstances in the service
of pleasure, closure, or—at the very least—change.
NOTE: The following excerpt from Brahms Among Friends (Oxford UP, 2014) treats the Violin Sonata, op. 78, and its connections with Clara Schumann and the death of her son Felix. Opus 78 is sometimes called the “Rain Song Sonata” for its allusions to Brahms's Lieder “Regenlied” and “Nachklang,” from op. 59. Brahms Among Friends is no. 12 of AMS Studies, a series undertaken by the society in 2002 (see all titles HERE).
|Clara Schumann in 1878|
One can only assume that the delicately uplifting close of the finale had helped to alter Clara's stance. Within a few weeks, she went on to single out these measures as the pinnacle of the work as a whole, the apex of its affective arc. Her second response to the piece was dominated by the final, major-mode version of the borrowed song incipit—“the climax of the first melody in the last movement, where it comes back for the last time and rolls back and forth, melancholically, yearning!” Her enthusiasm was not confined to July 1879. To the contrary, the passage remained the focal point for future interactions with the sonata. Perhaps the most tantalizing of these came more than a decade later. In a letter dated June 16, 1890, she told Brahms of a recent performance of Op. 78 at her home in Frankfurt: “Joachim was with us on the 8th (Robert's 80th birthday), for two days we played a great deal, once more the Rain Songs sonata, which I reveled in again—I always wish that last movement for myself at the passage from here to eternity.” In the aging pianist's imaginary, the end of the movement eventually became a bridge to the infinite, its plagal benediction and bittersweet thematic transformation carefully positioned as the final sensory experiences of her own life. Her letter therefore drew together and recombined a complex of extramusical connotations analogous to those Brahms might have planned or predicted when he first sent her the completed sonata: the approach of death, the memory of a departed male relative, and the gradual achievement of a broader perspective on loss and the passage of time. At least in retrospect, Op. 78 had fulfilled its potential as an agency of consolation and transformation.