Norman Fischer’s Approach to Brahms’ Sonata in E Minor for Cello & Piano

One of Beethoven’s most famous quotes is, “Don’t only practice your art, but force your way into its secrets, for it and knowledge can raise men to the divine.” One of the wonderful things about spending a great deal of time with musical masterworks is that, over the course of years, one discovers many of these “secrets.”

Discovering these secrets has been a treasure for me and my duo partner Jeanne Kierman—having spent nearly 50 years studying, performing, teaching, and now releasing an all-Brahms album on Centaur Records. The album includes the two sonatas and the Op. 91 songs with cello obbligato (instead of the usual viola).

Did you know that when Brahms was younger he played the cello (modestly) and, like his father, a bit of French horn, too? I now see in the first movement (between the cello and right hand of the piano) “horn fifths” at the end of the exposition in mm. 86–7, mm. 248–52, and m. 277 to the end. For years I didn’t think about this, and then just before recording it, I read some horn blogs to see how they tune for optimal acoustic effect. It makes a tricky situation since the piano doesn’t vary its pitch, so the cello has to be really “tuned in” to make the adjustments. Now I make a bigger deal about this orchestration as a way of remembering Brahms playing horn duos with his father, and also to create a more bucolic character as the materials find resolution at the end of the first movement.

It is important in the lower dynamics to articulate with some clear energy to show the octave figure’s potential to take over the conversation.

There are lots of opportunities for varied articulations that highlight the musical textures of this remarkable movement, and here are two of my favorites. In the coda of the exposition (as well as later in the recapitulation), there is a two-note slur that happens between the cello and left hand of the piano (starting in m. 78). Brahms alternates at the beat, with piano 4-1, 2-3, and cello 1-2, 3-4. We have experimented with gently stressing the first of the two notes and lifting the second note to create a combined rippling effect.

In mm. 38–9, there is a G octave in the cello (half-quarter-quarter), which is seemingly the least important thing going on at that moment. This figure moves by four bars in the piano left hand, then right hand, and then back to the left hand as it increases in volume and intention. Ultimately this octave figure reappears at the climax with two octave leaps in the piano and then the famous passage in the cello at m. 118. It is important in the lower dynamics to articulate with some clear energy to show the octave figure’s potential to take over the conversation.


And then there is the dichotomy between the use of espressivo and dolce that shows Brahms indicating different types of character. There is much discussion about the use of these terms, but I feel intuitively that the espressivo music is more thick, dark, and forward than the more vulnerable, light, and tender dolce music. At least one can’t argue about the use of legato. (Or can we?)

The new Bärenreiter edition is full of great extra information and critical commentary, and thus I recommend it over the Wiener Urtext, which was the best option available until 2015.

Player Cellist Norman Fischer formed the Fischer Duo with pianist Jeanne Kierman Fischer in 1971. They have recorded more than a dozen albums—most recently the Brahms Sonatas on the Centaur label. Norman Fischer is professor of cello and director of chamber music at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music in Houston. He also holds the Charles E. Culpepper Foundation Master Teacher Chair at the Tanglewood Music Center.


Work Being Studied Sonata in E minor, Op. 38, for cello and piano, first movement

Johannes Brahms

Date Composed 1862–65

Bärenreiter (2015)

This article originally appeared in the March-April 2019 issue of Strings magazine.