Musical Difficulty of Brahms D minor sonata

November 27, 2019, 2:02 AM · Hi all,

My teacher told me that the Brahms D minor sonata is extremely difficult musically, given the complex emotions within the piece. In fact, he said much life experience is needed in order to fully capture the musical essence of the piece. To what extent do you all agree?

Replies (32)

November 27, 2019, 2:38 AM · I'm sure he's right, but you could say the same about all great music and much music that isn't so great. I could work for ever on a simple tune like Tchaikovsky's Barcarolle and still not feel I've fully captured its musical essence
November 27, 2019, 7:39 AM · Play what the notes make you feel, your interpretation will change with time anyway. You'll know when it truly sounds right and it doesn't matter if that's not what someone else wants. We already have so many similar versions of the same pieces because of convention, could we try something different for a change?
Edited: November 27, 2019, 10:30 AM · I mean, there's probably a little bit of exaggeration here in terms of "life experience" and "complex emotion", but for sure all 3 of the Brahms Sonatas are pretty high on the list of difficulty under the right hand. The left hand in this sense is not a soaring technical challenge provided you can easily hit the shifts and can produce different vibrato. They are pieces you probably shouldn't study until the technical aspects are firmly under your belt.

Oh, and one more thing. Finding a pianist who can actually play this with you is likely to be a as much a challenge as all the other things.

November 27, 2019, 11:22 AM · Its very prosaic and one can not help but wonder if the origin of such ideas - e.g. life experience - are more musical mysticism rather than musical reality. I suspect that 'life experience' can actually be translated mostly into 'emotional and physical pain'.

OTOH does anyone know of a childhood prodigy that can do a convincing Brahms violin sonata?

Edited: November 27, 2019, 7:09 PM ·

18 years "ex prodigy". She has also recorded the G Major, also live, but at her "old age".

There's truth to that, but players must some times throw their feet to the fire, and approach the same works later, when they have developed their musicality, life tragedies or otherwise. Else, no one would play the Mendelssohn-among many other "student works"-when young either.

And I agree all pieces ultimately benefit from "musical depth"-even the more technical Concerto works.

November 27, 2019, 8:38 PM · I haven't done any sort of systematic study, this is just gut feeling, but I think one of the things that changes the most as one ages and (hopefully) grows more musically mature is the sense of timing. In general, it seems like younger players tend to not like to linger on notes or phrases in the same way that older players do and I think Brahms sonatas need that sense of expansiveness.
Edited: November 27, 2019, 9:03 PM · I think there is something to what Irene says. My own feeling is that "musical expression" basically boils down to developing a largely technical tool-box and learning to apply it according to what is expected for a given period or specific piece. These tools are rubato, stentato, vibrato, dynamics, all sorts of things that can be combined in myriad ways. Musical expression is not "mere technique" but I don't think "life experience" matters explicitly. What matters is playing and listening experience so that one can better develop range, subtlety, and perhaps even individuality in the way these "tools" are employed. As with all things, some people just pick up on it more quickly than others.

Can an 8-year-old super-prodigy play Brahms? I don't know but I suspect there are many people here who would be duped into thinking they were hearing a seasoned adult professional if they were listening blind.

There have been other threads on this in the past as well.
In that thread you will see how I have commented further on the issue of "life experience" in musical interpretation.

Edited: November 27, 2019, 9:29 PM · It just isn't merely age or tragedy, but a conglomerate including technique ("toolbox") and a keen musical sense ( which is as much a talent as something that all could theoretically develop.) One can suffer a lot and have tons of life experiences and still play with limited musicality, but on the other hand, many people with a "limitless toolbox" still manage to play rather insipidly at times-though to be fair, this is not only limited to young players.

November 27, 2019, 9:32 PM · In order to get "life experience" for interpretation of a composer's work, listen to other pieces by the composer. Pick any of his 4 Symphonies, string quartets, etc. I think one of the greatest deficiencies in orchestral auditions, etc. is the lack of knowledge about the style necessary for Brahm's compositions.
Edited: November 27, 2019, 11:52 PM · I agree with Bruce. I think one of the reasons that "maturity" seems to play a significant part in the seeming quality of musical interpretation is the depth of useful musical experience one has, and not life experience.

The more refined and complex the interpretive demands, the more it's important to really have a comprehensive understanding of the composer's style, which involves a broad familiarity with their music, multiple interpretations of it, and if possible, hearing many other performances of the specific piece in question (live, if possible). It also helps to have either an academic familiarity with theory/analysis, or enough exposure to be able to instinctively recognize how the line is shaped harmonically.

For chamber works like sonatas, one needs the experience to be able to understand how to collaborate with a pianist. The pianist isn't accompanying you. The give and take between two musicians who may have independent ideas depends on the ability to spontaneously react (which also involves a deep understanding of the other player's part and the way it interacts with yours), communicate silently, and have a communal sense of timing, and the ability to guess what the other player is trying to do and respond accordingly -- which also requires the ability to react instantly and with a very high degree of technical command. A child is unlikely to really be able to interact fully with an adult collaborator.

Refined technical command of color, shading, and the like tends to come later in a player's development. For kids on fractional-size instruments, the equipment itself might not be capable of giving them what they really hear in their head, and may make it both more challenging to execute and harder to get the feedback they need to learn. Ditto for inexpensive student instruments in general, even at full size. It's far harder, I think, to gain highly refined command of the right hand than it is to be able to cleanly execute things in the left hand.

I wholly agree with Irene on timing as well. I think timing is, in part, a function of the way the passage of time goes by in our heads. As an adult, time seems to pass more quickly, because each second is a tinier fraction of our life as a whole. Moments stretch out more for children, and it probably affects their sense of the appropriate tempos and what constitutes "lingering". That said, lingering is not always better. I always think the young, play-everything-really-fast Nathan Milstein is more compelling than the older Milstein, for instance.

In short, I don't think that it's necessary to have life experience to be a great interpreter of music, and arguably, some of the most compelling musicians are the ones who grew up largely isolated from the world and broad "life" -- for instance, the magnificent Josef Hassid. Some skills, however, take time to learn and are hard to develop as children.

November 28, 2019, 1:05 AM · Here is Pamela Frank teaching Brahms Sonata no. 1 in a masterclass at the Menuhin competition 2018; the young violinst is Christina Nam, 15.

It is a wonderful lesson about the many nuances of dynamics in Brahms, about cadence and harmony, all coming directly from the score. To me it emphazizes what has already been said, that Brahms demands musical maturity, not life experience, but that this maturity not happens to be there one fine day. It has to be developed through playing, listening and teaching - and starting to work on and with these pieces at a young age. Like solo Bach, I think these pieces are life companions that change and develop with us as we grow more mature.

November 28, 2019, 2:56 AM · I agree with pretty much all the above. However, in another place we've recently been discussing "musicality" and come to the conclusion that it's to a large degree innate and if you don't have it you probably won't acquire it with age. And I agree with that too. And I also agree that lots of highly musical musicians, even some unquestionably great ones like Benjamin Britten, never "get" Brahms.
November 28, 2019, 8:54 AM · I have a simpler answer than others here who seem to imply that you need to learn the composer's oeuvre before you can perform this piece - that it's an 'adult' piece, which isn't very exciting or immediately appealing, and requires a greater amount of sustained concentration and listening to appreciate, and as such is something of an acquired taste. So my answer is that, just as adults might claim to like beer for the taste, and eschew cream soda, the reverse applies to kids, and this is beer.

In addition it probably doesn't work without decent piano accompaniment, because of its harmonic content, which would be another challenge for the student to overcome while learning.

November 28, 2019, 1:40 PM · I remember a performance of Brahms's quartet no. 1 that was part of a chamber music recital which was given by players of a local community orchestra. Now choosing Brahms for such a venture is daring. The quartet was made up of the four voice leaders, the CM a professional, the other three amateurs. They did a very respectable job technically. Decent intonation, nice ensemble playing, dynamic nuance, it was all there. Yet I found it a terrible performance. It was as if they were gliding over the music and not engaging with the dense and dark character oft the work. The tempi were too fast in all "fast" movements, especially the third (Brahms gave the tempo as "allegretto molto moderato e comodo" and just in case somebody did not get the hint he noted it down in 4/8, not in 2/4; it has to count in eighths) but also the first and last. The music was gliding along on the surface ignoring all the depths that are there. I blame the concertmaser who was an extremely young woman and had obviously not spent much time with the score. And I longed for a rule that forbids people below 50 to play Brahms in public. I do agree with the violin teacher.

To me there is something about Brahms that makes his music music for us older folks. Our music teacher at school said Brahms's music was "about death" which is obviously oversimplified and overgeneralized but it is not wrong (as a teenager I did not like Brahms--except for the B flat string sextet--and I thought it ridiculous that any music could be "about death").

Personally I am sure the violin teacher is right. But if you want to study the sonata I think you should go right ahead and do it (assuming you meet the technical demands sufficiently). I only have a problem if you want to perform it in public. And of course: Who knows but that you may just prove that you "get it" at a young age and that my rule does not apply to you?

November 28, 2019, 4:44 PM · I think it is just as condescending to say people under the age of 50 should not perform Brahms in public as it is to say (as in Cotton's aged cheese thread) that his audience of old folks only pretends to appreciate classical music.

Brahms's chamber music is hard. Players may be focusing on just the technical execution even if it seems solid. Or they may be concentrating on the basics of the nontrivial ensemble issues.

Beyond that, chamber music requires extensive rehearsal time to arrive at group interpretations, and can be limited by the least skilled group member.

Edited: November 29, 2019, 10:33 AM · Around our house we joke about Brahms being the ultimate angsty teen music, with all the sturm und drang, drama emotion and beauty. The kids have (gasp) played the C minor trio in public, and in a master class even. Of course it's not like it will be with 20 years of perspective, but the music speaks deeply to them, and after a couple of years playing Haydn and Beethoven trios, especially with high-level coaching, why not? That said, they're not yet allowed to attempt the first trio :-).

The cello transcription of the D minor sonata is on deck for sometime this coming year. You can neatly hear the effect of 10 years of experience on this with a 25-year-old Yo-Yo Ma, first from 1981 at then in 1991 at

November 29, 2019, 11:15 AM · I disagree with Brahms veing for "old people", as he wasn't "old" himself for all of his works. I frankly doubt He would agree humself. Nothing wrong with being old, tgough, and musical experience is alwats gelpfyl.

Some younger players play with rare musical ability, while some experienced folks at times do not have much to say.

Maybe the teacher meant in a "nice" way that Mr. Hoe should get much more musically developed before attempting the work, and went a step extra in describing what he meant, to scare him off the work up until he is "ready ".

While one does not need to "suffer" to play with depth, "suffering" can be fuel for good music making. I would not discount "life experiences" as useless, if the player is able to make use of them as ingredients for works being played.

Edited: December 3, 2019, 6:01 PM · I performed the 1st 2 movements at the age of 18. At that time I'd already been captivated by the 4th Symphony (I think this sonata and the 4th Symphony have more in common with each other than with other works by Brahms - I still think Boult's interpretation is difficult to improve on), to the extent of improvisation and compostion in that style; and I think the two of us gave a fairly convincing performance of those movements (One mistake I remember making in the 1st movement was failing to realize I should phrase off after several 1st beats in the bar and clearly start a new phrase on the 2nd beat, the most flagrant instance being the 10th bar before the 1st double bar. I think I was right in making sure the hairpins sounded exacty as they were written. In the 2nd movement I later heard a master class student make sure that double stopped phrases actually sounded like they began on the 1st beat of the bar (to the extent of jumping up some 4 positions on the bar line), and I think she was right and I had been wrong.
I think that if my pianist had been technically up to the last movement we'd have given a creditable performance of that too.

The really problematical movement to interpret is the Scherzo, both in the Sonata, and in the Symphony. I'm convinced that in those movements Brahms is TRYING to be funny. He's no Saint-Saens, Malcolm Arnold or Fritz Spiegl, of course, but we do need to make it sound as though he is at least trying. Vulgar slides in the requisite places are, I think, the order of the day. I'm not sure if anyone actually does it that way. I certainly never thought of it at the time, and I didn't hear it later in the Szeryng and Lush either - we were very pleased to hear it sounding what I described as "grim".

December 4, 2019, 2:24 AM · John wrote: "In the 2nd movement I later heard a master class student make sure that double stopped phrases actually sounded like they began on the 1st beat of the bar (to the extent of jumping up some 4 positions on the bar line)"

John could you clarify that please? It sounds interesting but I don't get what you mean.

December 4, 2019, 2:43 AM · I think I do. In measure 20 the student stays in first position rather than shifting to third on the third beat (as marked) and makes a big shift up to fifth position for the double stops of measure 21. With a little portamento that would certainly make for a climactic moment.
December 4, 2019, 3:45 AM · thx steve
Edited: December 4, 2019, 6:16 PM · Jean and Steve, she jumped up 4 positions to make sure the entire bar was played on the same pair of stringss. I hadn't done so, and an implied accent fell on the 2nd beat.
I'm pleased, by the way, that people seem to take on board what I have to say about the scherzo.
Edited: December 5, 2019, 1:37 AM · Those bars always used to defeat me. In 21 I'd be inclined to slide from second to first position on the second beat, similarly in 53 slide from 5th to 4th. In 59 goodness knows what. The sonata scherzo is wonderful, but I wouldn't have thought funny! I probably haven't played the thing for 30 years and my juices are starting to flow again.
December 5, 2019, 5:45 AM · Of course scherzo literally means joke, so John is looking at it the way Brahms intended.
Edited: December 5, 2019, 6:13 AM · I don't wish to be contentious but I now see Brahms didn't actually call it "Scherzo", just "Un poco presto e con sentimento"! He did use the term in other chamber works such as the piano quartets and quintet
December 5, 2019, 7:45 AM · interesting but i still don't get it (sorry for no capitals, i have to type with one hand :-(

so this is measure 21 !indicated on my copy as rehearsal letter A). can't you simply play the first beat in 3rd pos, second in 2nd, and third in 1st?

Edited: December 5, 2019, 8:43 AM · Two slides? The second one would have to be very quick to fit in the semidemiquaver (aka 32nd note) rhythmically.
December 5, 2019, 10:07 AM · I see no problem with that 32nd note, you are coming from a long note and tempo is slow.
December 5, 2019, 10:35 AM · You're right, it does work because the following double stop is unchanged. But I'd prefer to finger the preceding slide or in my hands that bar would sound like two howling wolves. Two bars later, similar thing.
December 5, 2019, 1:43 PM · thanks steve, about the "in my hands", i am sure you can make this sound good. i am in no position to give you tips, but anyway: shifting is done as much with the bow as with the left hand. you temporarily lift or lighten the bow and you do the same with the fingers while shifting.
Edited: December 7, 2019, 6:08 PM · Your teacher's right, and he/she is probably trying to guide you to music that will benefit your development the most.

But I would respond that playing Brahms, even before you're ready, counts as life experience of the best kind. There's nothing lost by being exposed to Brahms early.

I fell hard for Brahms when I was 15 or 16 and my appreciation has only deepened over 45 years of playing and listening to others play Brahms. Just wait until you can get 5 or 6 first rate string players in the room to play the quintets and sextets -- almost nothing compares. But you have to have really good musicians to pull it off.

If you're an accomplished player and you know an accomplished pianist, maybe just try to read the 3 Brahms sonatas for fun over the next year without spending too much time learning them. I guarantee it will be a rewarding experience. Sometimes playing great music before we're ready can at least tell us some things about what we need to learn technically and musically.

And for what it's worth, the A Major (#2) is generally considered the most difficult to perform. But to read it for fun is one of those wonderful life-affirming experiences. It's one of the reasons we study violin so hard, to be able to play music as lyrical and superbly crafted as this.

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