Sonata for Cello and Piano Op. 143
Mozart meets Stravinsky – in a Paris cabaret. As unlikely as such a meeting might be in historical terms, it is about as good a description as you can find for the musical style of French composer Francis Poulenc. The directness of his writing, its exuberance of expression, and its bright sense of tonal colour and theatrical flair owe much to Stravinsky while his love of balanced phrases, clear formal proportions and transparent textures points fondly back to Mozart. Like his fellow composers in the group known as Les Six, he steered clear of both the vaporous aesthetic refinement of Debussy’s Impressionism and the weighty emotional rhetoric of German Romanticism, finding his inspiration instead in the naive sentimentality, carefree tunefulness and lively wit of the music hall, the circus and the cabaret.
Poulenc was first and foremost a melodist, one of the great melodists of the 20th century. His melodic lines are rhythmically square and full of wide intervals, giving them a light, breezy quality. His harmonies are conventional, but often extended with added 9ths, 11ths and 13ths, which he treats as tonal colour rather than functional tones that need resolving. This pastel tonal palette of blurry overtone notes fits in perfectly with his love of a ‘wet’ piano sound, drenched in pedal.
Poulenc’s Cello Sonata (1948) comprises the four movements of classical tradition: a sonata-form first movement, a lyrical slow movement, a playful scherzo and an exuberant finale. Remarkable in the work as a whole is the arm-in-arm chumminess of the two instruments that frequently echo back phrases to each other – a compositional ‘tic’ evident right off the bat in the congenial exchange of balanced 4-bar phrases that follows the bright fanfare of the opening bars. The movement presents a variety of themes, both animated and broadly lyrical, but does little to develop them, largely due to Poulenc’s nonchalant approach to modulation. He slips in and out of keys as if he were holding up a series of colour swatches to see which tone would fit best with the living room furniture.
A more serious tone is evoked in the second movement Cavatine that begins with the piano gently laying down a plush bed of saturated harmonies over which the cello sings out its nostalgic, slightly mournful melody. In working over this theme, the movement explores some rich sonic terrain in the lower register, occasionally achieving an almost Brahmsian feeling of intimacy, especially noticeable in the concluding lullaby section.
The third movement is entitled Ballabile (meaning “suitable for dancing”) and functions as the sonata’s scherzo movement. True to its billing, it playfully prances and struts in a manner reminiscent of a music hall number featuring Maurice Chevalier in a straw hat, twirling his cane.
The finale is an aesthetic puzzle. It begins with a sonorous and seemingly dead serious Largo that quickly yields the field to a rollicking tune of running triplets treated in close imitation. Eventually a mock-serious march appears, and then a lyrical theme of considerable tenderness. It is hard to resist the notion that Poulenc is having us on here, in true cabaret style, especially when the grave opening returns at the end, like a policeman appearing on the scene to take all the merry-makers off to jail.
Sonata for Cello and Piano Op. 119
When Andrei Zhdanov became Stalin’s minister of culture in 1946, he gleefully banned the works of Russian poet Anna Akhmatova before setting his sights on the Soviet Union’s leading composers. The Zhdanov Decree of 1948 accused Dmitri Shostakovich, Aram Khachaturian, and Sergei Prokofiev of formalism, the ideological crime of elitism said to infect composers who cravenly paid tribute to the formal conventions of cultural life in the capitalist West in preference to the native musical culture of the masses in their own country. How, in such a climate, Prokofiev was able to get his Sonata for Cello and Piano (1949) past the censors of the Soviet Composers Union remains a mystery, but it may well have to do with the calibre of the musicians tipped to perform the work at its 1950 premiere: pianist Sviatoslav Richter and cellist Mstislav Rostropovich.
Nevertheless, if formalism is the crime, this sonata is guilty as charged. It comprises three of the traditional four movements of the classical sonata: a first movement in sonata-allegro form, a scherzo and trio second movement, and a rondo finale. Working in its ideological favour, however, may have been the simplicity and direct appeal of its musical materials – a nod in the direction of the folk idiom – and the amount of time the cello spends singing from its lowest register, evoking the bass voice which Russian vocal music has always favoured.
Indeed, the work begins with a full-throated melody in the cello at the bottom of its range. This ruminative melody will book-end the sonata as a whole, returning in glory in the final pages of the finale. More directly lyrical is the second theme, introduced in a loving duet between the instruments that counts as the sentimental highlight of the movement. (Who knew that Prokofiev could write melody with such grace?) The development ups the emotional temperature in exploring these themes con espressione drammatico as the piano, too, explores its bottom register, and the recapitulation echoes this intensity of emotion in an animated coda that nonetheless ends the movement in a mood of serenity.
The scherzo second movement opens with a coy, stop-and-go pattern of childlike little chords in the piano. This leads to more a more rambunctious kind of play between the instruments that creates sparkle and animation by contrasting the extreme registers of each instrument. Faithful to the humorous intentions of the genre (scherzo is Italian for “joke”), the outer sections of this 3-part movement create their animated – almost cartoonish – good spirits by means of skippy staccatos in the piano and perky pizzicati in the cello. The central trio, by contrast, while still expansive in the range of tonal space it occupies, is all flowing honey and mellifluous melody, as tradition demands.
The last movement is rondo-ish in structure and features the simplest, clearest textures of the entire sonata. Its opening refrain is shockingly tuneful, spelled out in balanced answering phrases constructed out of breezy wide melodic intervals and even a couple of Scotch snaps – the sort of thing you might cheerfully hum to yourself while washing the family car with a garden hose. The two intervening episodes are miles apart in mood: the first bristles with lively scampering melodies, the second is serene and reflective.
Taking his cue from the finales of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev brings the sonata to a close with a grandiose apotheosis, in which the first movement’s opening bars are recalled in a gloriously broad retelling, accompanied by exhilarating swirls of runs in both instruments.
Sonata in A Major Op. 42
It will be a while yet before the Huffington Post is read by musicologists as a scholarly journal, and yet Alan Elsner, the Huff-Po reporter assigned to cover breaking news on the 19th-century Belgian music beat, is not wide of the mark in observing that
“There is a kind of breathless religious ecstasy to Franck’s music – soaring themes; simple, pure harmonies; those ceaseless, swirling, gliding accompaniments. This, one feels, is truly the music of the angels.” (29 Nov. 2011)
The work inspiring such shortness of breath and heady spiritual delirium in the intrepid journalist is, of course, the Sonata in A major for violin, a wedding present by the composer to the Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe and actually performed at the wedding in 1886 by Ysaÿe himself and a wedding-guest pianist. Soon adapted for cello by cellist Jules Desart, it lies at the heart of that instrument’s repertoire, as well.
The Allegro ben moderato first movement floats in a world of harmonic uncertainty. It opens with a number of dreamy piano chords, each followed by a simple chordal interval, as if giving the pitches to the instrumentalist, who then obliges by using them to create a gently rocking, barcarolle-like melody, the outline of which will infuse much of the work as a whole. This theme, played by the cello over a simple chordal accompaniment from the piano, builds in urgency until it can hold it no more, and a second emerges in the piano alone, which takes centre stage in an outpouring of almost melodramatic intensity ending, however, in a dark turn to the minor. The cello will have none of it, however, and dreams both sleepwalkers back to the major mode for an amicable review of the two themes, both in the home key. The serenity of this movement results from its rhythmic placidness, often featuring a sparse, simple chordal accompaniment in the piano, and little rhythmic variation in the wandering pastoral ‘de-dum-de-dum’ triplets of the violin.
Where drama breaks out for real is in the Allegro second movement, one of the most challenging in the chamber repertoire for the pianist. This sonata-form movement bolts from the starting gate with a swirling vortex of 16ths in the piano, fretting anxiously over a theme in the mid-range that is soon picked up by the cello. Its worrisome collection of motives is based on the same small-hop intervals that opened the first movement, but reversed in direction and cast in the minor mode. A more sunny mood prevails in the second theme which, however, ebbs away as both instruments take stock of the ground covered in a sober interlude marked Quasi lento. The development section engages in a full and frank discussion of the two themes until the convulsive agitation of the opening theme returns in the recapitulation. Despite the turbulence roiling at the heart of this movement, it manages to pull a major-mode ending out of a hat for its final cadence.
The slow third movement, a free-form meditation marked Recitativo-Fantasia, is bruised with the memory of the first movement’s bliss. Its piano opening is almost a bitter parody of the sonata’s very first bars. As this thematic material is brooded over, the cello tries to change the subject several times in distracted flights of fancy, but eventually agrees to join with the piano in a ruminative journey that passes through nostalgic reminiscence to end in heart-wrenching pathos. The searing intensity of the octave-leap ‘wailing’ motif at the end of this movement is the most profound moment in the sonata. No major-mode ending here.
All tensions are eased and all hearts healed, however, in a last-movement rondo that features a simple and tuneful melody in continuous alternation with brief sections of contrasting material. This tune, so harmonically rooted as to suit being presented in strict canonic imitation (like a round), is shaped from the melodic outline of the theme that opened the sonata, bringing its cyclical journey full circle. Even the ‘wailing’ motif from the previous movement is recalled to the stage to give it, too, a happy ending.
British musicologist David Fanning got it right when he intuited the celebratory meaning beneath Franck’s remarkable use of imitative counterpoint for the end of this “wedding present” sonata:
“It is hard to resist reading this as a musical symbol of married bliss, especially when the dialogue is placed even closer together, at a distance of half a bar rather than a full bar, on the deliriously happy closing page.”