Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata for cello & piano in C major, Op. 102, No. 1
Those who think of sonata form as a well-organized dinner plate – with the red meat in one corner, the mashed potatoes stationed opposite, and peas or broccoli distributed neatly over the remaining space – might be forgiven for thinking that Beethoven was playing with his food in composing this sonata, so irregular are its formal outlines and so free its inner patterns of musical thought.
But there is nothing childish about it. Along with the preceding Op. 101 piano sonata, it marks the beginning of the composer’s late period, a period in which his deafness moved him to express his thoughts in ever more concentrated form, yet with ever greater freedom. The world of late Beethoven is a world of contrapuntal textures, fluid formal boundaries, and not infrequently of ear-filling trills. It is the willful inner world of a composer who has retreated from the realm of sound, but with his love of that realm intact.
The first noticeable irregularity in this sonata is that it only features two movements, each of which begins with a slow introduction. Opening a sonata movement with a slow introduction is not an innovation on Beethoven’s part: Haydn had used it at the start of his Symphony No. 103 in E♭, as had Beethoven himself in his Pathétique Sonata, Op. 13. But here its use is different. Instead of portentously building up a sense of anticipation for the section that will follow, the slow introduction of this work’s first movement seems blissfully happy to merely meditate over the main motives that will recur throughout the sonata as a whole: a series of stepwise-falling fourths and a faster stepwise ascent of the same interval, presented by the solo cello at the outset. With a dynamic marking of piano and the expressive indications teneramente, dolce cantabile, this slow introduction is a virtual love-duet between piano and cello.
The end of this cheek-to-cheek slow-dancing in the placid key of C major comes all the more suddenly, then, when the sonata movement begins in earnest – in the key of A minor, the relative minor. An opening theme in octaves and unisons between the piano and cello opens the exposition, but expends its fury after two statements, stopping abruptly to allow a musical thought of smaller range, the second theme, to intervene. This abruptness is a characteristic feature of the movement. Beethoven feels no real need to create transitions between sections: he merely stops, as if a new thought has occurred to him, and goes off in a new direction after a pause. Although the exposition is repeated, that is perhaps the most “normal” feature of this movement, which has a compressed development section and a recapitulation which seems ready to luxuriate in a lingering coda – but no, it decides not to after all, and puts a quick end to the discussion.
The slow introduction that opens the second movement is more a serious affair, introspective and reflective, as if gazing at the stars. At first, the piano and cello seem to be in another duet, trading florid phrases back and forth, but then each retreats to its own corner, the cello ruminating deep in the bass as the piano explores ever higher terrain above. Bringing them back together is the opening theme of the first movement, recalled in a mood so lyrical that it dissolves into a dreamy triple trill before the perky theme of the Allegro vivace bursts its bubble.
This theme, an accelerated version of the rising stepwise fourths of the first movement, is uniquely Beethovenian in character. It is both a motivic cell that animates serious discussion in the fugato of the development section, and a toy-like bauble that gets tossed out playfully in a game of tag between the instruments, made all the more humorously dramatic by the numerous expectant pauses that punctuate these mischievous exchanges.
Sonata for cello & piano, Op. 99
Brahms’ second cello sonata is a ‘meaty’ work, the kind that Brahms no doubt would have wanted to play when he was studying the cello earnestly as a young music student in Hamburg. Designed expansively in four movements in the Beethovenian manner, with a third movement scherzo, it combines the impetuous spirit of the younger Brahms with the generous latherings of lyricism that characterize his mature style.
This sonata is a product of Brahms’ later years, a time when his life followed a predictable seasonal schedule. In the summer he would retire to the countryside to compose, then revise and correct his works for publication during the winter season. Waiting eagerly to play his new works when he returned home to Vienna each autumn were the members of the Joachim Quartet, headed by his friend, the violinist Joseph Joachim. The F major sonata was composed in the summer of 1886, during a summer sojourn in the Swiss countryside, and dedicated to Robert Hausmann (1852-1909), cellist in the Joachim Quartet – the same cellist for whom, with Joachim, he wrote the Double Concerto in A minor the following year.
The orchestral sweep of the sonata’s opening, with its rich carpet of tremolando figuration in the piano supporting bold fanfares in the cello line, sets it immediately apart from the subdued opening of Brahms’ previous cello sonata, the Sonata in E minor, Op. 38. This passionate but fragmented first theme in the cello seems to be shouting important news in all directions, like a town crier, while the second theme, announced by the piano, is a more smoothly connected melody. The tremolo figuration of the opening is not just sonic “filler”: it functions as a stabilizing counterfoil to the disjointed character of the sweeping opening theme, and plays a major role at the opening of the development section as well. Especially noteworthy in this movement is the magical passage that prepares the recapitulation, a passage in which time seems to stands still as the cello plays tremolo while the piano enacts great leaps from the bottom of the keyboard to the top.
The Adagio affetuoso second movement in simple ternary form carries the major emotional weight of this work. It opens with a procession-like tune in the piano, setting the scene for the cello to emerge in full-throated glory, singing out a richly chromatic but ever-so-lyrical melody that shows off the instrument to advantage in its high range. A middle section in the minor mode gives the piano a place in the sun as well, but the pool of light on the stage in this movement goes to the cello, which returns in the third section to wax lyrical once again, enveloped by an even more lavishly decorative piano accompaniment.
If the second movement belongs to the cello, the propulsive energy of the third movement, a scherzo marked Allegro passionato, is driven by strongly assertive piano writing. Cresting and subsiding in waves of sound, the opening section builds up sound resonance through the frequent use of pedal tones in the bass combined with a constant chatter of eighth-note motion above. Adding to the intensity of effect are the typical Brahmsian techniques of 2-against-3 rhythms (i.e.: “hemiola”), and syncopations that recall the opening of the scherzo from the composer’s Quintet in F minor. Where the cello emerges more clearly is in the trio middle section, in which it hums a wistful melody in simple note values. While this tune seems folk- like in its simplicity, a number of odd melodic turns indicate that it has more on its mind than it is letting on.
The sonata ends with a fourth movement rondo much in the relaxed vein of the last movement of the Piano Concerto No. 2 in B♭, Op. 83. Gentle and tuneful, its principal theme alternates with a short series of contrasting episodes, none of which spoil the overall mood of contentment that characterizes the movement as a whole.
Sonata for cello and piano in G minor, Op. 65
Chopin’s name is so intimately linked with the repertoire of the piano that it is difficult to imagine him writing for any other instrument. And yet he appears to have had a sincere appreciation for the sound and musical qualities of the cello. Not only do his works often feature piano textures with left-hand countermelodies in the cello’s baritone range – his Étude in C♯ minor, Op. 25, No. 7, is a classic example – but he actually wrote three chamber works for cello and piano: an Introduction and Polonaise brillante, Op. 3, a Grand duo concertant on themes from Meyerbeer’s Robert-le-Diable, and this sonata, his last published work, written for his friend, the Parisian cellist Auguste Franchomme (1808–1884).
The first movement opens with a sober, almost march-like theme announced in the piano, followed by a deliciously- scintillating pianistic flourish up to the high register, of the sort that must have made young ladies swoon. The cello then enters to take hold of the same melody and works through its melodic implications in a series of passionate interchanges with the piano until a moment of calm intervenes to set the stage for a vocally-inspired second theme of the utmost simplicity. While this movement is in sonata form, with a repeated exposition, the recapitulation is foreshortened and begins with the second theme. Because of Chopin’s habit of splitting melodic interest between the hands in his piano writing, the resulting texture when combined with the cello is extremely rich, frequently offering the ear three melodies to follow at once.
The second movement Scherzo pulls no dark consequences from the fact that it is written in the minor mode, preferring instead to create a more Mendelssohnian mood of “wicked merriment” in an exchange of short phrases between the cello and piano. The trio middle section, by contrast, spins out a waltz-like melody in long phrases over a simple, arpeggiated accompaniment pattern in the piano.
The Largo is only twenty-seven measures, but with its naïvely simple melody and widely-spaced piano accompaniment in hypnotically regular eighth notes, it recreates some of the intimacy of the nocturne genre, at which Chopin excelled. This untroubled movement, the still point at the centre of the sonata, has no other formal structure than that of a great sigh: it swells into fullness, then relaxes and fades into perfect repose.
The rondo-like final movement features themes of some dramatic complexity, most of which use dotted rhythms that play against a recurring pattern of triplets. The melodic and harmonic chromaticism of Chopin’s late style is fully in evidence in this movement, which ends with a stirring coda in a sunny G major.
Notes by Donald G. Gíslason, Ph.D.