Novelistic Analysis: A Reading of Brahms's Piano Sonata No. 2 in F-Sharp Minor

Janice Dickensheets, University of Northern Colorado

The novel (roman) bequeathed more than just its name to the romantic period: it became an institution. The reading of novels, privately and during social gatherings, was so common, that many composers (consciously or subconsciously) turned to the novel as a prototype -- in essence creating musical novels, complete with protagonists, musical events, and plots. Mikhail Bakhtin, in The Dialogic Imagination, discusses the innate characteristics of the nineteenth-century novel, and its position within its culture. This discussion provides a window through which we can observe similar characteristics within the romantic sonata cycle.

Acknowledging a certain parallelism between the novel and sonata cycle is one thing, but creating a working analytical system is quite something else, presenting numerous difficulties. Novelistic analysis, while discrete from topical analysis and narratology (a topic approached with care by many scholars), makes use of both processes, combining them to analyze music based on its novelistic elements. All novels contain, in varying degrees, protagonists, supporting characters, dialogues, monologues, and, most importantly, a plot, all of which must be in some way accounted for within a given novelistic musical work. By combining topical and stylistic analysis, narratology, and other semiotic approaches, it is possible, in many works, to discern characters, monologues, dialogues, and even plot-- like musical events within music that is otherwise considered to be absolute.

An excellent subject for this analytical process is Brahms's op. 2 piano sonata, which appears to have been composed while he was reading ETA Hoffmann's Kater Murr and Jean Paul Frideric Richter's Flegeljahre, and the complex writing styles of both authors inform this work. Existing analyses tend to conclude that the piece is awkward and problematic, however, it is possible to shed some light on its rather ambiguous formal structures using novelistic analysis.

There are clear parallels between the sonata (signed Johannes Kreisler Jr.) and the novels of both Hoffmann and Jean Paul. Its musical events reflect the Romantic topos of a lone poet reveling in love, suffering its demise, and finally turning inward. Characters and relationships are clearly defined musically, and a paradigmatic plot evolves out of the musical events. The altered form and musical footnotes mirror Jean Paul (whose enigmatic writing style seems to have had a profound influence on Brahms), as does a clear reference to a doppelgänger -- the specific topoi chosen for the primary themes of the fourth movement clearly delineate two sides of the protagonist. In addition, the musical events unfold in a circular manner, alluding to Hoffmann's Kater Murr.

This analysis clearly illustrates that Brahms was interweaving his music with romantic literature, even in his earliest extant compositions -- something that is nearly impossible to discern using traditional analytical procedures. Novelistic analysis provides us with a glimpse into what may be one of the best-crafted musical novels of the nineteenth century.