Cellist Johannes Moser takes a look at structure, character and speed, and explains why it is so important to honour the composer’s bowings, in the first and second movements of the E minor Sonata. From December 2017


This sonata is filled with amazing artistry from the start: the opening melody,  set on the lowest string, is dark and sinister, with a sense of disquiet. It is one of my favourite pieces and I frequently teach it to my students in Cologne. However, many cellists do not pay enough attention to what is actually written on the page. There is nothing wrong with falling in love with a certain way of interpreting the music, but I think we need to remind ourselves what is subjective and what was the composer’s actual intention. Looking carefully at what Brahms wrote, rather than listening to recordings to guide our interpretations, leads us to see details that are often overlooked.

Structure and style

Brahms had an affinity for musical ‘antiques’ – one of his favourite pastimes (pre-Spotify!) was to spend hours reading scores by Bach. He found it enriching, and that can be seen throughout this sonata: some believe that the beginning of the first movement relates to the third contrapunctus of The Art of Fugue ; the second movement has a Baroque-style minuet; and the final movement is a fugue, perhaps in homage to Bach.

Brahms also follows Beethoven’s tradition in that the music is rather sparse at times. To me that is a sign of true mastery: he creates an incredible universe from a few well-chosen notes. From bar 46, for example, he repeats one pattern for eight bars, then turns the phrase around in bar 50: after descending for four bars, from the G to the F, he goes back up to the E natural. If you take the forte with a grain of salt and instead lean into bar 50, then come away again afterwards, the shape will be like a hill rather than a flat plane.

From bar 78 there is a repeated pattern of falling 5ths, first in the cello part and then in the piano part. Brahms takes this motif and expands on the idea in bar 118, this time spanning two octaves, turning simple structural material into a thematic moment.

Don’t use all your dynamic forces from bar 118: you have a long way to go, and the C major chord to end bar 125 should be the strongest moment. I come down very slightly for the up-beat to bar 122, then do a huge crescendo until bar 126.

In the second movement, the Allegretto is very Classical, while the Trio is in a full-blown Romantic style, filled with passing notes that deviate from the harmony and load the phrasing with a natural resistance while keeping an organic flow. Often I hear the Allegretto played Romantically, which I think is a pity: the only singing line we have is in the grazioso, and overall using a lot of vibrato and legato hides the movement’s Classical form. Using minimal vibrato will help you to highlight the structure more clearly. This means you will have to phrase even more conscientiously with the right hand!

Both are made from the same substance, but they have a completely different taste – like salmon sashimi and salmon flambéed

After the Trio, it’s a fantastic moment when you come back for the da capo, if you make an enormous contrast between those juicy, singing lines and the sparse, strict and puritanical Allegretto. Both are made from the same substance, but they have a completely different taste – like salmon sashimi and salmon flambéed.

Working with the piano

Brahms said of this sonata that the pianist is by no means an accompanist, but an equal partner. The relationship between the parts is conversational throughout – even combative at times. If you don’t know the piece well, the shifting down-beats can give you a weightless feeling that makes you fall over. Playing from the piano score is a great way to learn the music without having to second-guess your colleague’s rhythms!


The first 16 bars define the character and tempo: the cello melody is laid back and sinister, but the piano pulls forward through the phrase. This friction makes the sonata very exciting from the beginning. From bar 21 the roles swap: the cello is piano, and in bar 22 the cello triplets drive the piano melody forward. I love the idea that even when we step back into second place, we still have to carry the theme in a certain way. Again, in bar 38 it is important to make room for the piano.

In bar 65, cellists tend finish the third beat as though it is the end of the phrase, but actually it is the pianist that completes the phrase two beats later. Make sure your energy leads into the piano melody.

In general, pianists should be careful not to use too much pedal. A particularly important moment is in bar 145, where the pianist imitates the cello pizzicato in the cellist’s rests. At the same time, the piano part contains diminished chord triplets that make pianists think, ‘This will sound so Impressionistic with a lot of pedal!’ If they do this, you will lose the pizzicato effect. Try to encourage your pianist to be mindful of how much pedal should be applied, so that the sound doesn’t blur too much.

This is chamber music making at its best: you really have to open your ears and senses to anticipate what your partner is going to do next


In the Trio it can be difficult to coordinate rubato with the pianist. I suggest that the piano leads for the first section and the cello for the repeat; then the cello leads for the second section and the piano for the repeat. When you are leading, do as much rubato as you like. This is much more interesting than simply playing the repeat louder or softer: by changing leadership, you can create more sophisticated and spontaneous differences in phrasing. This is chamber music making at its best: you really have to open your ears and senses to anticipate what your partner is going to do next.


I change as few of Brahms’s bowings as possible. If you can’t play a marked slur in one bow – for example, in bar 103 of the first movement – you are probably playing too slowly. You could, of course, dismiss all the bowings as phrasing marks, take the easy way out and divide everything, but I find following the composer’s bowings a good guide to tempo and musical direction.

In the first bar Brahms writes piano and espressivo legato. One could think of legato as playing under big slurs, but instead each note is separate. This puts a great speaking quality into the bow, with plenty of consonants to help the character, even with seamless bow changes.

Some people might find it strange to begin on an up bow, but I do this because it puts the heavier weight of the down bow on the most important notes of the phrase: for example, the third beat in bar 4, and the third beat in bar 7. This bowing also helps with the diminuendo into bar 8. When the opening rhythm comes back in bar 9,I start on a down bow so that the triplets on the hairpin in bar 11 fall on an up bow.

From the last beat of bar 117 I start on a down bow to add tension, then resolve each chord on the up bow. This is a difficult passage because you have to bow from the A string to the C string and the grace notes have to be even, in order to fit the architecture. Practise without the grace notes, for rhythm, then add them afterwards. They are really only there so that the D and G strings don’t ring; it is the outer notes that are important.

In bars 178–179 there is a repeat of bars 17–18, now under a slur. Why would Brahms change the bowing? He does it because in bars 17–18 we are playing by ourselves, so we can be as free as we want; but in bars 178–179, the piano plays underlying quavers (e). The slur prevents the cellist from taking too much time, so that the pianist does not have to adjust.

Try to keep the four-bar slur from bar 256. It’s a big commitment, but it will prevent you from slowing down for the piano and espressivo, and it will create a very dense, expressive sound. In performance, if you don’t feel you have enough bow, by all means change; but for practising and attuning the ear, it is good to give it a try.


This sonata doesn’t have a slow movement, so there is a tendency for cellists to play the beginning slowly, even though it is Allegro non troppo. To find the right tempo, look at bar 34, where the theme returns in the major and the pianist plays triplets. With the piano part in mind, find a speed that flows, allows you to pull forward in the syncopations of bars 2 and 4, and will work throughout the movement. To be metronomical would, of course, be against the spirit of Brahms: when he conducted his own symphonies, he would do huge accelerandos and ritardandos that were not written into the score! But it is essential that there is always a strong sense of form with a main pulse – even if, at certain points, we deviate from that ever so slightly.