Falling, Gently

Listen to This, by Alex Ross. New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2010. 364 pages.

BRAHMS: Violin Sonatas (Complete). Stefan Jackiw, violin; Max Levinson, piano. Sony S70397C/88697637692. 71 minutes.

There’s a brief passage near the end of the first movement of Johannes Brahms’ Third Sonata for Violin and Piano (d minor, Op. 108, 1887) that crystallizes for me why I’m drawn to his music.

Brahms’ melodies frequently are made of short, sharply-characterized motives that are pregnant with developmental possibilities. In this passage, the violin focuses on a short motive that, in its first appearance (Figure 1), emphasizes the two most important pitches in a piece in D (major or minor)—D itself (the home, or “tonic” pitch) and A (the “dominant” to D, the pitch that most supports the “D”-ness of a piece in D).

Figure 1

This motive (and melodic lines derived from it or related to it) characterizes the entire movement, through repetition, development, and by implication, in both the violin and piano parts. At the end of the movement, (beginning in the fifth measure of Figure 2) the violin plays the motive in three different octaves, each time lower than the previous one. Because the repetitions overlap (see for example the first measure of the second system in Figure 2) the impression is of a falling, a slow motion tumble, towards the conclusion of the movement, which ends with the violin on its lowest A natural.

Figure 2

This kind of gentle falling is an important aspect of Brahms’ art. So is the clever technique involved in the tumbling, with the overlapping playing of the motive in different octaves. This particular combination of expression and technique, almost a tension between the two, is central to the art of concert music.

In the concluding essay of Listen to This (“Blessed Are the Sad”), Alex Ross argues that this melancholy (which is not limited to the composer’s late works, which are often celebrated for their autumnal atmosphere) is an identifying characteristic of Brahms’ music, and it seems to me that he is on to something. Brahms believed he was at the end of a line of concert music (Ross relates an anecdote about Mahler refuting this idea in a conversation with Brahms) and his music has a summing-up quality, and the melancholy cast to so much of his music is in line with this feeling.

Not so incidentally, the motive discussed above has a good bit in common with the bass line Ross devotes an entire essay to in Listen to This ("Chacona, Lamento, Walking Blues"). This lamento bass line informs, as Ross richly illustrates, an astonishing variety of music throughout history. While the motive is not used as a bass line in this Sonata, it does fill in the musical space between D and the A below it, as does the lamento bass. And it surely does fall.

Stefan Jankiw’s debut CD (with pianist Max Levinson) is a recording of all three Brahms Sonatas. He and Levinson have very clearly studied and lived with these pieces for a long time—their reading of these mature, searching pieces (all three sonatas are relatively late works) is assured and expressive. The recording evinces a thorough understanding of Brahms’ particular sadness (what the novelist Walker Percy once referred to as a “sweet, rinsing sadness”) and an ability to transmit that understanding through performance.

One could do much worse of a midwinter’s evening than spend it with Ross’ book and Jankiv’s and Levinson’s Brahms.


  1. The pedal-tone development of Op. 108 is amazing, too - the way it holds stasis and motion in tension.

    I like to play the violin sonatas for people who think Brahms is dull.

  2. Anonymous7:58 PM


    What I don't like about Alex Ross is that he wants to do away with boundaries between genres.

    Well, classification is, to my mind, HELPFUL; to Ross it builds barriers. At once he says that "the core audience… mainly want to hear symphonies of Beethoven and concertos of Rachmaninov", but then suggests that "it no longer makes sense to generalize". That contradiction uncovers the confusion of the book. Ross cannot help admitting that he is both a score-carrying core audience member and a pursuer of the new wave or, more bluntly, a geek one minute and a new radical the next.

    Who are we to believe?

    I personally grow tired of his constant wrangling over what the music is and who should or could be its audience. If the music is all, Ross should take his own advice and listen to it.