Brahms wrote only three piano sonatas. The first of these, Opus 1 in C major, was completed in 1853 and published in that year with a dedication to Joseph Joachim. At Weimar Liszt had played through some of the sonata, before his usual admiring audience of followers, but whatever comments he may have made in the course of his performance have not been reported. Schumann, however, when he heard the sonata in Düsseldorf, was immediately impressed, as was his wife, who recorded the event in her diary. To Schumann the young composer was a genius, to whom no advice could be offered. In his sonatas were veiled symphonies in sound, as Schumann wrote in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik. Here, in fact, was the Messiah that had been long awaited. Such praise from such a source was daunting, and Brahms exercised all the greater care in revising his first two piano sonatas for publication in Leipzig by Breitkopf and Härtel.
The C major Sonata opens with an emphatic and firmly classical first subject leading to a lyrical A minor second subject, exploring a wide range of keys in a manner that might suggest Schubert. The second movement is based on an old German Minnelied, the words of which are given with the opening melody:
Verstohlen geht der Mond auf,
blau, blau Blümelein,
durch Silberwölkchen führt sein Lauf,
blau, blau Blümelein.
Rosen im Tal, Mädel im Saal,
o schönste Rosa!
(The moon steals out,
Blue, blue little flower,
Through silver clouds he takes his course,
Blue, blue little flower.
Roses in the valley, maiden in her chamber,
O most beautiful Rosa!)
The song was published by the polymath Zuccalmaglio, to whom it has by some been attributed, although others suggest that he only added romantic coloration to the songs he collected. Brahms offers a series of variations on the theme.
The E minor Scherzo is contrasted with an expressive C major Trio, and the sonata ends with a Finale marked Allegro con fuoco, its principal theme derived from the first subject of the first movement. There is an expressive G major first episode and a second rondo episode in A minor, the whole movement ending in a passage marked Presto agitato, ma non troppo.
The second sonata was written before the C major Sonata. In the key of F sharp minor, it was completed in 1852 and published in Leipzig at the end of the following year with a dedication to Clara Schumann. It too was among the works Brahms played to Schumann in Düsseldorf in 1853. The first movement is a dramatic piece of great passion. The Andante, composed first, is a set of variations on an old Minnelied attributed to Kraft von Toggenburg, Mir ist leide. The Scherzo starts with a melodic figure from the song. In B minor it has a contrasting Trio in a lilting D major, and is followed by a Finale that begins with an introductory passage followed by a song-like first melody, derived from the opening. The mood of the introduction, with its brief cadenzas, returns in the F sharp major conclusion.