Johann Sebastian Bach
Cello Suite No. 2 in D minor BWV 1008
The instrumental suite, with its predictable allemande-courante-sarabande-gigue sequence of dances and its un-predictable addition of various galanteries (minuets, bourrées, gavottes, etc.), was a staple of the Baroque.
Arising from neither of the period’s two great wellsprings of musical emotion – religious piety and operatic bombast – the subtext of the suite was social gaiety in an intimate setting, but not just any setting. The tone had more than a whiff of aristocratic elegance about it, its imaginary terpsichorean world being one of crisp court etiquette rather than rollicking village merriment. This was the music that housewives of the Baroque era’s rising middle class heard in their head as they reached for Hello magazine, or Majesty, in the checkout line at the local fishmonger’s.
In this context, the second of Bach’s set of six cello suites from ca. 1720 is a remarkable example of the genre. Written in a minor key, it constitutes an exceptionally dark and serious take on the dance culture of the French court, from which the religious and dramatic impulses of Lutheran Germany cannot be excluded as inspirational prompts in its creation.
The opening Prelude is homogenous in its texture of running 16th notes, from which a recurring habit of pausing on the second beat of the bar stands out as a distinctly sarabande-like feature. Its opening arpeggio spelling out the D minor triad sets out a pattern of similar arpeggiated approaches to this second- beat pause that will pervade the movement as a whole, building tension in waves of melodic and harmonic sequences that seek ever higher ground.
The dances that follow are in binary form, each comprised of a first section that drifts away from the home key followed by a second section that returns to it, with each section played twice. The Allemande begins assertively, with a quadruple stop that establishes its punchy style of rhythmic emphasis that, combined with its wide range of motion, provides it an exceptionally rambunctious start to the dance set. The Courante hikes up the intensity a notch further in a driven moto perpetuo of virtually constant 16th-note motion.
The clear harmonic outlines of this breathless movement make it one of the most toe-tapping of the suite.
Darkest of the dark in this collection is the extraordinarily grave Sarabande, set in the deepest register of the instrument. A feeling of intense longing comes through in its long-held dissonances and its bewildered, searching phrases beset with anxious hand-wringing trills.
Minuets I & II form a matched pair of musical contrasts: the first in D minor, thickly scored in multiple stops but with an overtly dancelike lilt; the second in a contrasting D major, sparingly laid out in a single owing line of melody. We see in this pairing a precedent for the future matching of minuet & trio in the Classical era.
The concluding Gigue is true to its origins in the English or Irish jig, characterized by wild leaps, repetitive rhythms, and angular lines of melody that constantly change direction. Sombre as this suite is as a whole, its rollicking finale recaptures some of the genre’s elegant exuberance and élan.
Ludwig van Beethoven
Piano Sonata in E Major Op. 109
The grandeur of Beethoven’s musical imagination is tellingly displayed in his antepenultimate piano sonata, a three-movement work that first dreams, then rages, and finally drifts beyond all mortal care to end at peace with the world. Its first movement is a gentle star-gazing fantasy, its second a sharply focused agitato of nightmarish intensity. To conclude, Beethoven reconciles these emotions – the lyrically expansive and the rhythmically driven – in a theme- and-variations finale that gives each its place in the sun.
The first movement is remarkable for its compactness. It opens with a pleasing sequence of harmonies divided between the hands that seems to oat in the air like the uttering of a bird’s wings until a harmonic surprise leads to an affectionate duet between soprano & tenor voices. This second subject is itself interrupted by a rapturous series of arpeggios and scale figures soaring up and down the keyboard.
These three contrasting elements – uttering broken-chord harmonies, lyric duet, and keyboard-sprawling figuration – form the entire content of the movement. But it is the first of these, the uttering broken-chord harmonies, with which Beethoven is obviously in love. It pulses through the entire development and concludes the movement in a coda that seems to drift to its conclusion, ebbing away rather than emphatically ending.
All the more shocking, then, is the contrast between this improvisatory first movement in E major and the arrival of its evil twin, the turbulent second movement in E minor, that follows without a pause. Here, signs of struggle are evident in the competing aims of a call-to-arms figure urgently rising up in the right hand and a stern passacaglia-like bass line grimly descending in the left.
This is no scherzo: there is no peaceful, contrasting ‘trio’ middle section. Rather, it is an unorthodox sonata-form movement driven to continuous contrapuntal development. Despite the breakneck pace, pervasive chromaticism manages to give a sharp edge of pathos to the movement’s violent outbursts and mysterious murmurings.
And then the clouds part, a warm spirit of peace and reconciliation shines down from the heavens, and the sonata ends with a theme-and-variations movement imbued with more than a hint of religious ecstasy.
And how could it not, given the shadow of J. S. Bach that has hovered over the sonata from its opening bars? The broken chord figures of the first movement look back to the ‘pattern’ preludes of the Well-Tempered Clavier while the same movement’s cadenza-like exaltations of keyboard-spanning arpeggios find their correlative in similar outbursts of bravura in Bach’s organ toccatas. More explicit reference to Baroque practice is made in the second movement, which is shot through with canons and passages in double counterpoint. And now, in this finale, we encounter a slow elegiac melody of almost religious solemnity, with the rhythmic imprint of the sarabande (emphasizing the second beat of the bar), and harmonized with the melodically-conceived bass line of a four-part Lutheran chorale.
The first variation is an Italian opera aria for keyboard, while the second features a hiccupping division of material between the hands. Baroque instincts move into the foreground in the contrapuntal explorations of Variations 3 to 5. In his final variation, Beethoven transforms his theme from a plain chordal harmonization into a whirling sea of swirling figuration and twinkling stars in the high register before settling down to earth to take leave of his theme once again, presented once again in all its original simplicity – just the way Bach ended his Goldberg Variations.
Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata for Cello & Piano in D Major Op. 102 No. 2
The second of the two sonatas that Beethoven published as his Op. 102 is a particularly thorny creation: elemental, sinewy, and unyielding in its pursuit of musical ideas at the expense of musical sentiments. This is not the place to look for pleasant tunes to hum in the shower.
It comprises three sharply chiseled movements: a sternly brisk first movement with a drill-sergeant edge to it, an emotional black hole of a slow movement, and a full-on gritty fugue finale to let the duffers know just who they are dealing with. It’s quite a ride, this piece, and coming at the very start of Beethoven’s so-called “late period”, it gives a taste of the denseness and concentration of musical thought to come in future works.
The sonata opens with an arresting fanfare, ideal for deep-sleepers to program into their alarm clocks. These four quick notes and a big leap set the tone of brusqueness and forthright direct statement that characterizes the exposition throughout. The military bearing of its musical manner is reinforced by the frequent use of “snap-to-attention” dotted rhythms, bare-bones unison accompaniments, and the odd feeling that there is a bugle somewhere playing along with its many motives based on the major triad. Even the patriotic second theme sounds like a slow-motion fanfare. Only in the development section in the middle of the movement, and in the suspenseful coda at the end, does one move inside from the military parade square and begin to feel the sweep of long phrases governed by an overarching harmonic plan, in place of the exposition’s barked-out orders and responses.
The second movement is oppressively Baroque in mood, its dark emotional tenor reinforced by a dirge-like pace and almost Brahmsian fascination with the low register of the piano. The movement’s opening melody of even 8th notes – with a pause at the end of each phrase – suggests a chorale tune, but the comparison is undercut by the oddly ‘limping’ dotted-rhythm that serves to accompany it. There is something ‘not quite right’ about this deep lyricism, with its eerie unisons and melodic turns that are more worrying than graceful. More expansive lyrical sentiments inhabit the middle section in the major mode, but all in vain, as the Grim Reaper returns to restore the grave tone of the opening, its rhythmic ‘limp’ having now become a twitching ‘tic’.
In keeping with Beethoven’s emerging tendency in his late period to isolate his musical material before developing it, he begins his transition to the finale by spelling out the rising scale figure that will become his fugue subject, first in the solo cello, then echoed back in the piano – like a magician who first shows you both sides of a silk handkerchief from which he is going to miraculously pull a flapping pigeon or a bouquet of flowers. This fugue subject, when it arrives, is metrically a bit ‘o ’ in the way that it weakens the first beat of the bar to the advantage of the second. This makes trying to follow the dazzling patchwork of fugal entries a daunting exercise in mental concentration, for which a tapping foot is only a distraction. The buzzing series of trills in the texture near the end point to their successors in the ‘sound-symphony’ finales of the last piano sonatas.
Sonata for Cello & Piano in D minor
Debussy’s compact little sonata for cello & piano was written in 1915 as part of a series of instrumental sonatas meant to assert the value of French culture during a depressingly long war that Debussy saw as threatening France’s very survival. The work comprises three movements, each successive movement shorter than the previous.
The first movement Prologue announces its motivic foundations in the first bar: a quick triplet and long note, followed by a descending modal scale figure. Rhapsodic elaborations of the triplet figure form its first theme; tender ruminations on the descending scale figure its second. An animated middle section prepares for the triumphant return of the opening material and its serene farewell.
The Sérénade that follows lives up to its title with ample pizzicato writing for the cello and a fair imitation of guitar strumming in the piano. Capriciously paced and leering with portamento slides, this movement pursues its evening entertainment goals with infinite delicacy.
In contrast to the spare scoring of the previous movements, the Finale simply bubbles over with running notes. This is a movement in a hurry to get somewhere, but the scamper is often rewardingly interrupted by – or superimposed with – long strands of lyrical melody.
Sonata for Cello & Piano in E minor Op. 38
Brahms’s first published duo sonata, written between 1862 and 1865, is sombre in tone and antiquarian in inspiration. It is a weighty work – so weighty, in fact, that it stands complete without the emotional ballast of a slow movement at its centre. It features a sonata-form first movement generously proportioned in its three themes, a remarkably dancelike minuet and trio, and a fugal finale.
The shadow of Johann Sebastian Bach hangs long and dark over this sonata. Its opening theme seems to owe much in its outline to an inversion of the opening subject of Bach’s Art of the Fugue while the fugue subject of the finale is a dead ringer for the opening of the Contrapunctus 13 from the same work.
The sonata opens serenely with the cello rising up from its deepest register underneath a plush covering of o -beat chords much akin to those accompanying the opening theme of Brahms’s Symphony No. 4, also in E minor. A section of rippling triplets leads to a second theme in the minor mode that is evocative of struggle, with its close imitation between the instruments and its singularly Brahmsian metrical pattern of 3/4 groupings in 4/4 time.
A final theme emerges with the consoling character of a lullaby – and who better to write lullabies than Brahms? These themes are treated in sequence in the development section and reviewed in the recapitulation to complete a template-perfect sonata-form structure.
The second movement minuet is distinctly archaic in flavour, not only in its modal scale patterns and Phrygian cadences, but also in its dainty, genuinely danceable ‘minuettish-ness’. Its straightforward rhythm and simple pattern of note values contrasts with the more fulsome harmonies and Romantically conceived piano writing of the Trio, that comes replete with its own rhythmic irregularities and slightly gypsyish alternations between major and minor.
Is the last movement a real fugue? It would appear to begin like one, channelling Bach with its dramatic octave-plunge fugue subject. But doubt begins to creep in when a lyrical and owing second theme appears in the relative major. The relaxed graciousness of this theme, an evident contrast to the stern character of the opening fugue subject, puts us squarely in sonata- form territory. And sure enough, both themes are masterfully juxtaposed in the ensuing development section. The manner in which Brahms seems to amalgamate these two very different themes – the Baroque-fugal and the Romantic-lyrical – into one continuous thread of music narrative, switching from one to the other at close range, is the measure of his historical and musical imagination.
Donald G. Gíslason 2017