Programme Notes

Sonata for cello and piano Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918)

I: Prologue. Lent, sostenuto e molto risoluto.

II: Sérénade. Modérément animé III: Finale. Animé, léger et nerveux

This sonata belongs to Debussy’s last years, a time for him of great personal as well as external distress. The cancer which had been lurking for several years was now undeniable and had necessitated major surgery; and in addition of course the political situation was dire with his beloved homeland entangled in the Great War, a struggle in which he was well aware he could take no physically active part. For a whole year his despair put paid to any creative urge. But in the summer of 1915 the juices began to flow again: ”I want to work, not so much for myself but to give proof, however small it might be, that even if there were thirty million Germans, French thought will not be destroyed”.  As well as producing two major piano works, he also conceived the idea of a set of sonatas for different combinations of instruments, each bearing on its title page below the composer’s name the words “Musicien Français”. Sadly he died with the project only half completed.

The cello sonata was the first to be composed. From the first the work divided opinion, disappointing those who expected a heartfelt lament for the carnage of war sung in the cello’s most poignant manner. Instead the three brief movements, elusive and kaleidoscopic, paint a terrifying picture of the life of Paris at the time with the war practically in hearing distance. Scraps of ideas from the composer’s earlier works are heard in moods varying from the sadly regretful through the darkly humorous to the downright panicky, the reaction of a musical genius to the disintegration of both his own world and the world around him.   

Cello Sonata No.1 in E minor Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897)

I: Allegro non troppo   II: Allegretto quasi menuetto   III: Allegro

Brahms’ first cello sonata belongs to the early 1860s, the period of the piano quintet, the first string quartet and the German Requiem. The first two movements were finished in 1862 and the finale three years later by which time a proposed adagio had been written but rejected.  When he submitted it to Brietkopf & Härtel for publication, they turned it down; it was the rival firm of Simrock who actually issued it in 1866. The title page refers to it as a “sonata for piano and violin” and the relative importance of the two instruments is reinforced by an editor with direct links to the composer’s own performance, stating that “the piano should be a partner – often a leading, often a watchful and considerate partner – but it should under no circumstances assume a purely accompanying role”. In the way in which the material is laid out there is little chance of the piano being tempted into a subservient role. 

Although the flavour is unquestionably Brahms’ own, his reverence for the music of JSBach is clearly evident; themes in both the outer movements are clearly based on canons in ‘The Art of Fugue’. Indeed the finale is sometimes referred to as ‘a fugue’ though a better description would be a sonata allegro with substantial fugal sections. It is preceded by a movement with the poise and apparent regularity of a minuet although Brahms of course expands the material and its treatment way beyond the conventional, although the basic A-B-A minuet and trio shape is there. The first movement is as we would expect – a substantial sonata form movement with long-limbed themes needing lengthy paragraphs in which Brahms can explore, dissect and rebuild them across a wide emotional range.

Fantasiestücke Opus 73 Robert Schumann (1810 – 1856)

I: Zart und mit Ausdruck II: Lebhaft, leicht III: Rasch und mit Feuer

It is little wonder that Schumann chose the generic title ‘Fantasy Pieces’ for several of his works. No formal expectations are raised – rather he allows his ever-fertile imagination to roam where it will, the quality of inspiration being enough to give the modestly proportioned pieces shape and coherence, even without the fanciful titles which he sometimes gave them. This particular group was composed over two days in February 1849 – how different from the cautious, steady methods of his protégé Brahms! – and were originally conceived for clarinet. But it was Schumann himself, rather than a publisher with an eye on increased sales, who sanctioned their performance on violin or cello instead.

Cello Sonata No.2 in D major Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1809- 1847)

I: Allegro assai vivace II: Allegretto scherzando

III: Adagio IV: Molto allegro e vivace

From his teenage years onwards, Mendelssohn’s outstanding musical gifts, in combination with his winning personality, earned him enormous popularity wherever he went; concerts, commissions for new works and tempting offers of employment poured in. He was happiest and most fulfilled in Leipzig where he had direction of the famous Gewandhaus concerts and where he established the music conservatory, soon to become the most famous in Europe, in 1843. But he was also obliged to heed a royal ‘request’ to head the music department of the new Academy of the Arts in Berlin, a city which, despite being his birthplace, had never taken him or his music to its heart. These dual responsibilities in addition to his frequent visits to this country and elsewhere sapped even his nervous vitality and it is often felt that it was from this time onwards that his original music began to  lose some of its freshness and originality – he was simply too busy to give it the time and energy which his remarkable gifts deserved. 

But this decline was a gradual and inconsistent process – there is excellent music belonging to these hectic years: the Violin Concerto, the full set of ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ incidental music, some of the best of his accompanied church music and the D major cello sonata, first performed in Leipzig in November 1843. As in so much of Mendelssohn’s music, both classical and romantic elements are to be found: formally the sonata follows traditional practice and there is even evidence of the composer’s reverence for JSBach in the adagio which combines elements of the chorale in the piano part and of free recitative from the cello. But there is a romantic breadth of feeling and a powerful energy, especially in the first movement, which looks forward into the high romanticism of the mid-19th century.    

Copyright: Richard Hall