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Romantic Cello Sonatas

Romantic Cello Sonatas

Sunday February 25 at 3:00 pm
Trinity Episcopal Church | $24

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Program Notes

During the years in which Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) composed his first Cello Sonata, he experienced a range of highs and lows that impacted his personal and professional lives. Brahms had survived his youth to attain a first maturity; his idol, Robert Schumann, was dead and buried, though Brahms would nurture a deep intimacy with Robert’s widow, Clara, for another 30 years. In 1859 Brahms made a major public debut as soloist in his Piano Concerto No. 1. While his piano playing was highly praised, the work itself was nearly hissed out of existence after only two performances. At the same time, he made a serious faux pas by criticizing the “New German School,” headed by Franz Liszt, for departing from classical forms in favor of symphonic poems and improvisatory fantasias. Yet he enjoyed cordial relations with the New German School’s figurehead, Richard Wagner, and continued to applaud the latter’s works for some time. These professional tensions were compounded by two personal setbacks: a failed marriage in 1859 and his mother’s death in 1865.

The Cello Sonata in E Minor will show how clearly Brahms allied himself with the past. And that is no surprise, for he had recently been working on several projects that brought older music to the fore. He wrote cadenzas for Mozart piano concertos and a series of Variations and Fugue on a theme by Handel. More substantially, he programmed a great deal of Baroque vocal repertoire by Schütz, Bach, and Handel as director of the Vienna Singakademie beginning in 1862.

That summer Brahms was still living in his native Hamburg when he sketched three movements for a cello sonata. Two were retained to form the first and second movements of the E-Minor Sonata heard today, but the third (an Adagio) was destroyed. It took Brahms three years to pick up the thread and compose his eventual finale in 1865, by which time much had transpired. He had moved permanently to Vienna; he had since composed numerous pieces, including two significant chamber works (the F Minor Piano Quintet and the E-flat Major Horn Trio); and he had begun a massive German Requiem to honor his recently-departed mother.

The Cello Sonata opens with a vast Allegro, equal in length to the other movements combined. Its first theme is static and rather tinged with melancholy. Brahms will vary the theme during the recapitulation some ten minutes later, giving it greater rhythmic energy. But at the start he adheres to a sense of calm grandeur. Truth be told, this is not one of the composer’s most memorable themes, and the entire first movement would benefit from a few passages of heightened drama. At the same time, other moments in the form draw our attention and praise, such as the charming theme that closes the exposition.

Without a genuine slow movement – Brahms consigned his original attempt to the fire – the Allegretto quasi Minuetto (composed in 1862) and final Allegro must provide balance to the massive opening movement. The Allegretto offers clear evocation of dance, and its best material arrives during the second subject. Rippling piano accompaniment and chromatic sleight-of-hand (the A-flat of F minor being the enharmonic double of E major’s all-important G-sharp) allow Brahms to make striking tonal moves effortlessly.

Despite our awareness that Brahms revered the older contrapuntal forms of Handel and Bach, the sonata’s Fugue finale still comes as a bit of shock on first hearing. Brahms’s biographer Karl Geiringer feels the finale’s subject is “astonishingly like the Contrapunctus XIII” from Bach’s Art of the Fugue (1750). Indeed, Geiringer also hears links between Bach and the Cello Sonata’s first movement. (As a caveat, Geiringer was also an esteemed biographer of Bach, so he may have been predisposed to find such connections.) Overall, however, this movement becomes more about sonata form than fugue as other features, including the rapturous lyricism of the second theme, gradually take hold of the narrative.

We are motivated to remark on the question of balance between the two instruments. As Geiringer observes, this sonata emerged only after Brahms had largely mastered the piano + strings texture in two Piano Quartets (completed 1856-1861) and the great Piano Quintet (1864). Still, the duo texture provides a new challenge: how to balance a single melodic instrument against Brahms’s thick and powerful piano textures. In this Cello Sonata, that balance is best found in the earlier movements; the finale generally favors the piano. Brahms explained to colleagues that the piano “should be a partner but never assume a purely accompanimental role.” Even the work’s title (Sonate für Klavier und Violoncello, or Sonata for Piano and Cello) reinforces the piano’s priority. At the private first performance, Brahms apparently overwhelmed the cellist, Josef Gänsbacher, a talented amateur who was also the work’s dedicatee. At one point in the middle of the performance, Gänsbacher complained that he could hardly hear his own instrument above the piano’s tumult, to which Brahms acidly retorted, “Lucky for you!”

Whereas the E-Minor Cello Sonata marked Brahms’s first effort in the duo genre, the Cello Sonata in F Major (1886) emerged under very different circumstances. Brahms was 53 years old in 1886 and at the peak of his profession. He had been valorized across Europe as one of the most important living composers, receiving an honorary degree from Cambridge and being lauded by several sovereigns. That summer Brahms was in a chamber music mood, generating two violin sonatas and a piano trio. Perhaps even more germane, he had recently composed dozens of exceptional songs. This heightened sensitivity to the voice was sure to impact his approach to any work involving the expressive timbre of the cello; indeed he inserted themes from several songs into the contemporaneous Violin Sonata in A Major.

The F-Major Cello Sonata includes four, equally-scaled movements. From the very outset Brahms establishes a very different mood from his earlier sonata. The opening Allegro, lasting about seven minutes, offers a tightly organized sonata form. Its first theme combines a flurry of notes in the piano with a rhythmically punctuated figure in the cello, yielding an impression of great restlessness. Brahms can then pull back to create moments of striking stillness, but these are brief and nearly always followed by passages of renewed urgency. Throughout we feel greater care has been taken to feature the piano either on its own (with the cello silent) or in support of the stringed partner, rather than competition. One technique is complementary rhythm: when the cello is more active/fluid, the piano is static/chordal, and vice versa. The choice of dedicatee might help explain small improvements. Whereas the first sonata was dedicated to an ambitious amateur, Brahms offered the new sonata to Robert Hausman, an adept professional who could command the highest technical and aesthetic levels.

The Adagio affetuoso only reinforces Brahms’s progress in the duo sonata genre. So much maturity can be observed from just the opening phrase. The cello presents a “walking” pizzicato motive, redolent of the slow movement from Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in A, Op. 2/2, paired against thick piano chords. The harmony slides toward the subdominant (IV) region momentarily, before additional chromatic gestures in the piano are passed directly to the cello as the theme changes hands. Following a turbulent episode in flat keys (F minor, B-flat minor), the opening material returns to presage a full recapitulation and rapturous coda.
After the reverential Adagio, Brahms returns to his best in the tempestuous third movement. The main theme’s 6/8 meter conveys a dance-like verve. But coupled with the minor mode and the composer’s incredible ability to vary rhythmic patterns, this becomes a dervish rather than a placid country dance. At the movement’s center Brahms carves out a lyrical respite. We can hold onto that contrasting mood, knowing that its brevity cannot withstand the imminent return of the main theme.

After so much has already transpired in this Sonata, Brahms wisely avoids a heavy-handed fugue or massive finale. Instead, lasting barely four minutes, this delightful Rondo sweeps by with breezy, facile charm. A combination of pesante stomping, lyrical melody, and concise structure call to mind images of pastoral folk music. But this is Brahms, in the end, and even the most accessible material will have its sumptuous harmonic subtlety and virtuosic flourishes.


Most listeners know Edvard Grieg (1843-1907) by virtue of only a handful of works: the brilliant Piano Concerto, of course, and character pieces based on Scandinavian myth or folk material (e.g., the Lyric Pieces, Peer Gynt). Grieg did not contribute significantly to chamber music literature. He did write three delightful violin sonatas but completed no piano trios, one string quartet, and just the one cello sonata that we hear today. That Cello Sonata in A Minor, Op. 36, emerged in 1882 and was premiered the following year by the composer and cellist Friedrich Grützmacher. At the time, Grieg’s conducting responsibilities with the Bergen Symphony kept him from full-time composition. In addition, his health was far from good; he suffered ever since his student days from significant respiratory disease. The few completed works tended to emerge in batches during periods of relative good health and respites from other professional demands. By the early 1880s Grieg already enjoyed considerable fame at home. He had also made connections abroad with important musicians like Franz Liszt (who championed his Piano Concerto) and Pyotr Illych Tchaikovsky.

The Cello Sonata contains three substantial movements, beginning with a fiery Allegro agitato. The main theme projects idiomatic, Romantic-era gestures: note the lyrical cello melody unfolding in long notes above a feverish piano accompaniment. As the texture thickens, Grieg extends greater importance to thunderous piano octaves. The piano takes the lead in a hymn-like second theme. Through it all Grieg displays his deep mastery of the German conservatory tradition, merging rich counterpoint, contrasting affects, and bravura technique. Like Brahms, Grieg was a formidable pianist who played his virtuosic Piano Concerto to rapturous audiences across northern Europe. Similarities between the concerto and this cello sonata begin with the shared key (A minor) but hardly end there. The sonata’s first movement features a massive cadenza, begun by solo cello, that literally borrows chord progressions from the concerto’s cadenza. Both works also share pages of rippling piano arpeggios at parallel moments, as well as colorful shifts between A major and A minor at climactic moments. Perhaps more than anything else, the Cello Sonata succeeds in precisely the same way as the Piano Concerto – by maintaining dramatic intensity in and through moments of the most tender lyricism.

The second movement, Andante molto tranquillo, starts as a lovely piano solo, clearly echoing many of Grieg’s own Lyric Pieces. He has the uncanny ability to compose simple melodies that, while not based on actual folksongs, feel genuine and traditional, seemingly captured straight from life in the hills and fjords of his native Norway. Just moments into the movement, however, a new theme opens a window onto more dynamic vistas. A tempest builds gradually toward an eruption of piano octaves from which, like sunlight seen through passing clouds, the main theme reappears in new tones. Overall, this Adagio is certainly one of his most accomplished movements, though it is far less well-known than other works of similar stripe.

The Sonata’s finale opens with a languorous cello solo, acting like a curious summons to the spritely theme that follows. Here, in full glory, is the Grieg of “March of the Trolls” – vigorous, impish, able to combine delicious harmonic progressions with captivating rhythmic patterns. Anyone who knows the 70+ Lyric Pieces will feel at home in every measure. Put another way, those who delight in this finale should avail themselves of the Lyric Pieces. The form suggests a Rondo, but Grieg seems content to nostalgically quote several of his Lyric Pieces and give them the kind of extensive development they could not receive originally as piano miniatures. A series of ever-more agitated reprises leads to a massive coda, again recalling the Piano Concerto. And at over 800 measures long(!), the finale doubles the scale of the first two movements put together. Grieg may have poured so much into this one finale that to attempt anything more in other chamber works would have seemed superfluous. We don’t know why he did not compose more chamber music than he did. But I think we can be grateful that, if Grieg was only going to bequeath one Cello Sonata, at least what he did create admits no let-off in its combination of power and poetry.

© Jason Stell, 2024

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