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Musical Allusions in Brahms Scherzo, F-A-E Sonata

There is something about allusions in classical music that fascinates me. For me, I enjoy discovering similar rhythmic, thematic, motivic, and melodic ideas from one piece to another. The way I see it, these type of indirect references were a composer's way of showing admiration and respect to their fellow colleagues.

Unlike some other composers living around his time, Brahms was surprisingly open, for the most part, about his allusions. Even then, however, he still faced tremendous pressure of identifying with a cultural, national, compositional tradition while feeling the need to create “new" art music. One of the most famous examples of allusions in Brahms can be found in the main theme of the last movement of his First Symphony. Upon hearing it, a musician close to Brahms remarked how the work had a striking resemblance to the Ode to Joy theme from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Brahms quipped, "Certainly. Any ass can see that." I guess this musician really struck a nerve with that comment!

Brahms Symphony No. 1 in C minor, 4th movement

Beethoven Symphony No. 9 in D Major, Ode to Joy theme

As I mentioned in my last post, I am currently practicing the complete violin and piano sonatas of Brahms, which I will perform with violinist Lin He. Also featured on the program is Brahms' Scherzo from F-A-E Sonata, a collaborative musical work with his mentor and idol, Robert Schumann, and Albert Dietrich. This work is interesting because each movement is based on the musical notes F, A, E, which also represents a cryptogram: Frei Aber Einsam (free but lonely).

In this piece, Brahms immediately presents a catchy rhythmic motive that will permeate throughout the piece (see below).

Brahms Scherzo in C minor for Violin and Piano from F-A-E Sonata

Interestingly, this motor-like idea is seemingly a favorite of Brahms. We see this rhythmic theme similarly employed in his other works written around the time: Piano Sonatas, Op. 1, 2, and 5; and perhaps, to a slightly lesser extent, Scherzo, Op. 4, and his Piano Trio, Op. 8. I decided to trace this element in his other works (see below).

Brahms Piano Sonata in C Major, Op. 1, 3rd movement

Brahms Piano Sonata in F sharp minor, Op. 2, 3rd movement

Brahms Piano Sonata in F minor, Op. 5, 1st movement

I have always wondered the source of Brahms' infatuation of this rhythmic idea. Was this a "new" idea? Or borrowed from a previous composer? To my knowledge, we have no way of knowing as Brahms never acknowledged these particular references.

My guess? I'd say Beethoven, specifically from the opening motif from his Fifth Symphony. What do you think? Based on Brahms' admiration and respect of his predecessor, I would not put it past him!

As the great Igor Stravinsky once said: "good composers borrow; great ones steal."

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