Sonata in G minor for Violoncello and Piano, Op. 5, No. 2
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

As a composer of sonatas, Beethoven's richest legacy is the monumental collection of 32 sonatas for piano.  He composed a number of duo sonatas as well, however, greatly enriching the repertoires of both violin and cello.  The five cello sonatas are particularly special because Beethoven was the first major composer to recognize the cello as a significant solo instrument.  Though he wrote no cello concerto, in the five sonatas he emancipated the instrument from any residual Baroque associations as a mere continuo component.

The first two of Beethoven's cello sonatas date from very early in his career, at a point where he had a greater reputation as a virtuoso performer than as a composer.  He wrote both Opus 5 sonatas in 1796 for the Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm II, who was an accomplished cellist and an enthusiastic patron of the arts.  Beethoven performed the sonatas in Berlin with Jean-Louis Duport, the King's court cellist, dedicating both works to Friedrich Wilhelm.

While the two sonatas place great demands on the pianist, their surprise lies in the cello part.  These works are pivotal to the cello’s transition from a continuo voice to its status as a full-blooded romantic solo instrument.  There is no real precedent for cello/piano sonatas before his Opus 5.

The G minor sonata comprises two large movements; however, the majestic slow introduction to the first movement is so extended that it fulfills the psychological role of a slow movement.  Beethoven allocates important melodic material to the cellist throughout the sonata; in the introduction, it takes its cue from the descending scale outlined in the opening measure.  The Allegro is driven and restless, with dazzling runs for both players.  In keeping with late 18th-century convention, Beethoven switches to major mode for the Rondo finale, easing the dramatic tension of the imposing Adagio sostenuto and Allegro.  

 Sonata No.3 in A major for Violoncello & Piano, Op. 69                                                         
Ludwig van Beethoven

Among Beethoven’s five sonatas for cello and piano, Op. 69 in A major falls squarely in the middle, and is the sole representative from Beethoven’s so-called ‘middle period.’ The two early ones (including the sonata that opened this evening’s program) were published together in 1796 as Op.5. Opus 69 was composed in 1807 and 1808 and published in 1809; and the two relatively late sonatas date from 1815 and were published simultaneously in 1817 as Op.102.  Thus the A major sonata gives us a good sense of Beethoven in full maturity, at the height of his powers, but before the monumental late works that so puzzled his contemporaries. 

He worked on the sonata simultaneously with the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, the Mass in C, Op. 86, and the two Piano Trios, Op. 70.  The sonata bears a dedication to Baron Ignaz von Gleichenstein, who was the German secretary in Vienna's Imperial War Department.  In addition to being an excellent cellist, Gleichenstein was Beethoven's closest friend from 1807 to 1810 and handled many of his business affairs.  Sadly, the friendship was ruined by their respective pursuit of two women, the Malfatti sisters.  Beethoven's wooing of Therese Malfatti was unsuccessful; Gleichenstein married her sister.

Beethoven's spacious writing in Op. 69 obviously predates any stress in his relationship with his friend, for the sonata overflows with a sense of relaxation and good humor.  In spirit it looks forward both to the Violin Concerto and the Archduke Trio.  The unaccompanied cello theme that opens the first movement establishes both a leisurely atmosphere and the sense of cello as significant partner in the music-making.  Indeed, the occasional cadenza-like commentaries, wide range of the instrument exploited by the composer, and the splendid interplay of thematic material between the two instruments bespeaks enormous growth on Beethoven's part from the Op. 5 sonatas. 

Opus 69 is noteworthy for its lively, syncopated second movement in A minor.  Also, the slow introduction to the finale (which, like the first movement, is a full-fledged sonata structure) adds greater weight to the last movement and precludes the need for a separate slow movement.

Sonata (1915)                                             
Claude-Achille Debussy (1862-1918)

Claude Debussy was almost 52 when the Great War erupted.  Obviously too old for military service, he sought other ways to express his staunch patriotism.  The French publisher Durand had undertaken to publish replacement editions for the now unavailable (and undesirable) German editions of the great musical classics.  Debussy assumed the gigantic task of preparing such an edition of Frédéric Chopin's works, and threw himself into his newfound project.

Delighted to have enlisted the prominent composer's participation, Durand urged Debussy to take on the editing of the Bach sonatas as well.  The composer demurred, apparently having been inspired by his work on the Chopin volumes with some new musical ideas of his own.  He started composing, producing in a short time the suite for two pianos,En Blanc et Noir, and the Cello Sonata.  The sonata was the first of a series.  Debussy originally intended to compose six sonatas "for diverse instruments"; he completed only three before his death in 1918.  The inscription at the head of the score includes the self-conscious sobriquet "Musicien français". 

The movement titles are a clue to the spirit of this sonata.  All three are reflective and Baroque, evoking the memory of the French clavecinistes.  One is hard pressed to find a striking relationship in these movements to the 19th-century romantic sonata; even the connection to traditional sonata/allegro form is marginal.  Debussy maintained that the sonata was "almost classical" in its proportions and form. In its reworking of rhythmic and melodic motifs among the three sections, it has cyclic elements.

The form of the sonata is compact, truncated to two movements.  The opening Prologue is a rhapsodic slow movement, free and declamatory.  Despite its key signature of one flat, implying d-minor, the movement is more modal than tonal.  Debussy's Sérénade, which opens the bipartite second movement, is unlike a traditional serenade: would-be lover with mandolin, lute, or guitar beneath the lady’s window.  The composer originally intended to call this movement "Pierrot fâché avec la lune" ["Pierrot angry at the moon"].  The cello uses a mandolin-like pizzicato.  But these plucked strings have a mocking ring to them; we are not quite certain how seriously to take this suitor.

Debussy's Finale is the most conventional movement in this highly unconventional work.  Its rippling piano part provides elegant, flowing accompaniment to the song-like cello lines.  The score is filled with specific, detailed instructions in both French and Italian as to the tempo and spirit of the music, for example, the indication Molto rubato con morbidezza [very freely and flexibly, with softness and tenderness] at one point.  Did Debussy not trust performers of his music, or had the conventional language of music ceased to accommodate his creative imagination?  Or was he merely having fun with us?  This work asks more questions than it answers.  In composing this one work for cello and piano, Debussy revealed a new facet of his musical self

 

Sonata for Cello and Piano, Op. 65   
Frédéric-François Chopin (1810-1849)

I write a little and cross out a lot.  Sometimes I am pleased with it, sometimes not.  I throw it into a corner and then pick it up again.

Chopin wrote these frustrated words to his sister during the months that he labored over the cello sonata, a work that gave him far more trouble than his compositions generally did.  He began work on the sonata at Nohant, the country home of his mistress George Sand, in summer 1845.  More than two years elapsed before he saw fit to play it in public, and the Sonata was the last of his compositions published during his lifetime.  (Nine additional works were published with posthumous opus numbers, but most were early pieces.)

Chopin's health was frail during these years.  He suffered from tuberculosis, which sapped his energy for years and claimed his life before he was 40.  For years, the prevailing view of the Cello Sonata was that it represented a weakening of Chopin's inspiration paralleling his declining health.  In part because it departed so markedly from his other late works such as the Barcarolle, Op. 60, and the Polonaise-Fantaisie, Op. 61, it was misunderstood.  Also, its lack of emphasis on a virtuoso role for the cellist mystified listeners accustomed to display pieces. 

In recent decades, the Sonata has undergone a reassessment.  Cellists now celebrate Chopin's insight into their instrument's vocal potential, reveling in the opportunities for glorious melody that the piece provides.  Musicologists consider that this work suggests a bold new direction Chopin's music might have taken had he lived. 

Chopin wrote the sonata for Auguste-Joseph Franchomme (1808-1884), a cellist who played in the Paris Opéra orchestra, and later in the pit of the Théâtre-italien; eventually he became solo cellist of the royal chapel.  The two men were friends for two decades -- Chopin also wrote his Grand Duo on themes from Meyerbeer's Robert-le-Diable  (1832) for Franchomme -- and the cellist visited Chopin up until the last, filling him in on the Parisian gossip after Chopin became too weak to leave his sickbed.

A year and a half before that, however, the two of them played the sonata's last three movements at a concert on 16 February, 1848, in the Pleyel piano and publishing house.  That performance proved to be Chopin's last public appearance in France.  One biographer, Arthur Hedley, has suggested that he may have withheld the first movement for fear that it was too modern for his audience. 

The music at first sounds reflective rather than innovative; in fact, its chordal opening measures in dotted rhythm are startlingly similar to the openings of the two early piano concerti.  A rippling, virtuosic piano flourish makes us glance at our programs again to be certain we are hearing a cello sonata.  Once the cello enters, however, there is little doubt.  Its tentative first phrase echoes the dotted rhythm in a significant motive that figures prominently through the entire sonata.  We do not generally think of Chopin as a composer who builds massive musical structures out of terse motives, like Beethoven.  This sonata causes one to reëvaluate our assumptions.

The scherzo is aggressive and more than faintly Polish in flavor; the Largo a gloriously romantic movement that has been called Schumannesque, probably because of its melodic eloquence.  In the closing tarantella, Chopin achieves perhaps the surest balance between his two players.  Throughout the work, it is clear that he understood the cello's melodic voice, albeit at the occasional expense of its technical capabilities.  We probably have Franchomme to thank for the richness of the cello's material.  The variance of textures and the overall narrative impact mark this wonderful work unmistakably as Chopin's.

Program Notes by Laurie Shulman ©2016