I spent last week at my family’s ancestral home in Washington, CT. I don’t remember what I did, exactly, but I think it involved many days of alternately cooking and eating.
I also got to play the piano badly and for fun, which is not something I usually have the time or energy to do in New Haven, perhaps because I don’t have a piano in my apartment’s living room. I took out all my volumes of Schubert sonatas and even pounded through the Hammerklavier. It was epic.
My brother Wells’s violin playing has blossomed to the point where he can sight-read Brahms and Beethoven with aplomb. We were reading through Brahms’s third sonata, and I had a shocking realization in the first movement development: it has a constant dominant pedal. I can’t think of any other examples of this in the classical literature. Can I even still call it a “development”? It’s really just an extended dominant pedal leading into the recap. Here, listen:Brahms: Violin Sonata no. 3, op. 108, first movement development
Robert Mann, violin; Stephen Hough, piano
I guess what astonished me was not the presence of the pedal, but how it threatens and ultimately subverts the feeling of sonata form in the movement. There is none of the bluster and bombast that Brahms usually brings into his developments; all the tension is roiling just beneath the remarkably calm surface. Instead, all of the outward drama gets postponed until the recap’s transition into the second theme, which swings wildly and at top volume between harmonic regions. In the normal trajectory of a sonata, one has a sense of “release” or “return” at this point; here, that sense has been completely undermined by the relative stasis of the development.