The biographical details surrounding the composition of Brahms’s First Violin Sonata, op. 78 are richly documented. He completed the work in 1879, drawing its thematic material in part from two songs, “Regenlied” and “Nachklang,” which he had published as part of his op. 59 six years earlier; the sonata quickly earned the nickname “Regenlied” as a result. Paul Berry has recently traced the micro-history surrounding Brahms’s sharing of the sonata, as he composed it, with Clara Schumann, arguing that the work was in part a consoling response to the tragic death of her son (and Brahms’s godson) Felix.
Where does this knowledge leave us today as analysts and interpreters of the sonata? Does such an ample documentary record constrain our present-day interpretive and affective encounters with the work or liberate them? This talk explores these methodological questions by focusing analytical attention on the sublimation of the songs’ melancholy incipit motive in the work’s outer movements. I ultimately argue for interpretive freedom as we hear and re-hear this process: while the sonata evidently arose in a period of emotional extremity for Brahms and Clara, it releases musical and affective energies that are not exhausted by that proximate biographical context.