Johannes Brahms wrote his first published piano sonata in 1852-3, but it was not the first piece he composed. Although his C-major piano sonata is labeled op. 1, he actually wrote the Scherzo op. 4 first, followed by the Sonata op. 2, and then the Sonata op. 1 (all works for solo piano). However, he chose to publish the C-major sonata first because he felt that he had “written something worth offering to the world as his op. 1.”
Brahms Sonata op. 1 builds on the tradition of Beethoven's piano sonatas by using a four-movement structure (typical of Beethoven‟s early sonatas). Each of the movements in Brahms Sonata op. 1 features a traditional form.
The first movement, in C major, is in sonata form (with three themes before the closing) plus a coda. The second movement, in C minor, is one of Brahms's first experiments in theme and variation form, a form that becomes one of his trademarks. The third movement is an E-minor scherzo and trio, and the finale is a rondo in C major (ABACA with a coda).
Brahms wrote the slow second movement in 1852 before the rest of the sonata, and he finished the other three movements the following year. Because the Andante of op.1 was written first, it is important to understand the compositional process and discover what sets it apart from the rest of the sonata. A unique feature of this movement is the text included in the music.The text, “Verstohlen geht der Mond auf,” is from an old German “pseudo-folk-poem” about the moon and love for a young maiden. The text fits perfectly underneath the rhythm of the music, and the music has an scary quality that is also fitting for the text.
Compare with Liszt's B-minor sonata. The form of Brahms' s sonata is vastly different from Liszt's. The Liszt sonata is one continuous piece, which can be interpreted as one long sonata movement, or a three or four movement structure. The form has been a point of scholarly debate for years, unlike the straightforward form of the Brahms sonata. The concept of formal structure is a major difference between these two sonatas.
Although Brahms Sonata op. 1 is an early work in his compositional output, it is still an important addition to the piano sonata genre as a Romantic-era piano sonata.
Bozarth, George S., ed. Brahms Studies: Analytical and Historical Perspectives. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990.
Musgrave, Michael. The Music of Brahms. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
"Johannes Brahms - Pinao Sonata No.1" Youtube Video. Uploaded Oct.13, 2013. Posted by “ollavogala ” Accessed April 13, 2014.