Hugh Mackay and Michael Pandya: 13 June 2024




Three of the four pieces to be heard on this summer’s evening were actually written during the summer months. The sonatas by Debussy, Beethoven and Brahms also come from late in their respective composers’ lives. Hence, they possess a reflective, austere and perhaps even transcendent quality. In his final book, aptly titled On Late Style, the eminent literary theorist and cultural critic Edward W. Said remarked that late works are filled with ‘anachronism and anomaly’, ‘intransigence, difficulty and unresolved contradiction’ and, in the case of Beethoven, ‘an impression of being unfinished’. When listening to late-style works, and when performing them, these characteristics certainly come to the fore.


Debussy: Sonata for Cello and Piano in D minor


The Great War had an undeniable impact on every composer living at the time. As the French musician Claude Debussy (1862-1918) saw the world around him being irrevocably changed, he embarked on a new project: a series of six sonatas for various instruments. His idea was to look back to the eighteenth-century idea of a sonata – a piece to be played (as opposed to a cantata, a piece to be sung) – and pay homage to the esteemed legacy of French instrumental music. He was very specific in this regard. Jean-Philippe Rameau and François Couperin were his models, not Bach and Handel. He even signed his manuscript ‘Claude Debussy, musician français’. Debussy only completed three of his projected set of six sonatas, the one for cello and piano we’ll hear this evening, another for viola, flute and harp and a third for violin and piano. In the summer of 1915, while undergoing treatment for colon cancer, Debussy was staying at the resort of Pourville in Normandy. It was here that he composed the Sonata for Cello and Piano.

The work is in three movements: Prologue, Sérénade and Finale. The Prologue opens with a sense of nobility, and its recurring flourishes and cadenza-like passages suggest the sense of improvisation characteristic of eighteenth-century French sonatas. The movement ends with ethereal-sounding harmonics, where the cellist touches the string rather than pressing it down. Such special effects fill the second movement, which also includes pizzicato passages (plucked rather than bowed) that sometimes seem like a jazz bass line and other times like guitar filigree. Other notable timbral effects include playing over the fingerboard, portamentos (sliding into notes) and left-hand pizzicatos. The dance-like finale, with its soaring cello lines, melodic flourishes small and large and numerous colouristic effects, brings the work to a satisfying close. After private performances in London and Geneva, the sonata had its official premiere in Paris on 24 March 1917 with cellist Joseph Salmon and Debussy himself as pianist.


Bach: Cello Suite No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1008


Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) wrote music to order for whatever post he held, whether it was instrumental works for fellow musicians at an aristocratic court in Cöthen or Lutheran cantatas for the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig. The six suites for solo cello were most likely written while Bach was Kappelmeister at Cöthen from 1717 to 1723.

This evening we’ll hear the second of these suites. The opening Prelude, with its haunting first three notes, establishes the sense of pathos and mystery that infuses the entire suite. During the eighteenth century, specific keys were thought to portray specific moods, or emotional affects. D minor, the key of the Second Suite, was associated with melancholy, contemplation, grief and solemnity. These characteristics became closely associated with the German artistic temperament and are evident in, for example, Albrecht Dürer’s engraving Melencolia I (1514) and J. W. Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774). They also infuse this suite.

Following the Prelude comes a series of stylised dances, not for dancing but for listening. These stylizations were meant to reflect on specific dances and their musical properties. They are akin to films about film-making or novels about writing novels. By Bach’s time, such dance evocations would appear in a prescribed order: an allemande, a stately processional dance; a courante, a more active skipping dance; a sarabande, a slow dance in triple meter; one or more optional dances; and a gigue, a spirited dance filled with buoyant musical gestures. For his optional dances, Bach chose a pair of minuets. The minuet was a courtly dance that was simultaneously a public display of social standing and a moment of intense intimacy. The first minuet would typically be more extroverted and the second more introverted. The first minuet would be reprised after the second, prefiguring the dance movements in the four-movement sonatas, symphonies and string quartets emanating from the German-speaking world in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.


Beethoven: Sonata No. 4 for Cello and Piano in C major, Op. 102, no. 1


On 31 December 1814, the Viennese palace of the Russian Count Andrey Razumovsky, one of Ludwig van Beethoven’s (1770-1827) most ardent patrons, burned down. Afterwards, the count, in desperate financial straits, was forced not only to return to Russia but also to disband his resident string quartet. Led by the violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh, the quartet had maintained a close relationship with Beethoven and had given the premieres of several of the composer’s string quartets. In 1815, the quartet’s cellist, Joseph Linke, found new employment as ‘chamber virtuoso’ to the Countess Marie von Erdödy, a fine amateur pianist. In the summer of 1815, Beethoven was staying with the Erdödys at their summer retreat in Jedlersee am Marchfelde, east of Vienna. While there, Beethoven wrote a pair of sonatas for Linke. These were published two years later with a dedication to the countess. The sonatas were first performed at the Erdödy estate. with Linke as cellist and the countess as pianist. For the public premiere in Vienna, Carl Czerny assumed the pianist’s role.

These sonatas occupy a distinctive place in Beethoven’s output. First, they are the final works he wrote for a solo instrument and piano. Second, they are generally acknowledged to be the inaugural works in his late compositional period, during which the music takes on an enhanced sense of abstraction and reveals new directions in terms of form and harmony. The first of the two sonatas, which we’ll hear this evening, is in two movements, each of which features two parts. Beethoven achieves a sense of thematic unity through a simple idea introduced by the cello at the onset: a melodic descent followed by a complementary ascent. The ascending figure becomes increasingly prominent as the sonata progresses. The second part of the first movement explores two contrasting themes, one restless and the other more subdued. As the second movement opens, Beethoven leads us through uncharted sonic terrain to a gentle theme and a brief recall of the opening of the first movement. The jubilant faster section is based on a short rising figure, a version of the ascending motif that unifies the sonata. Its exuberance is interrupted by dramatic silences, isolated loud notes and sustained open fifths (the intervals to which the strings are tuned), though ultimately elation overcomes these musical intrusions.


Brahms: Sonata No. 2 for Cello and Piano in F major, Op. 99


In the late 1880s, Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) was continuing his multi-faceted career as pianist, composer and conductor. He would spend the winter months in Vienna concertizing and then leave the city to compose. The summer of 1886, the first he spent at Lake Thun in the Swiss Alps, is sometimes called his ‘chamber music’ summer, for in addition to the Second Cello Sonata to be heard this evening, he also wrote a sonata for violin and piano and a piano trio.

The sonata is in four carefully crafted movements. The piano part is formidable, to the point that Brahms called it a ‘Sonata for Piano and Cello’. The eminent Viennese critic and champion of Brahms, Eduard Hanslick wrote, ‘In the Cello Sonata, passion rules, fiery to the point of vehemence, now defiantly challenging, now painfully lamenting.’ Brahms achieves this passion through various musical means, including metric layering, whereby two notes in one part are played against three notes in another, thick piano textures – though cleverly not in the register in which the cello is playing at that particular moment so that it can be heard – and tremolando, a fast measured oscillation between two pitches. Brahms himself played piano at the work’s premiere alongside Robert Hausmann, a cellist known for his voluminous tone. The two offered a private performance in Berlin on 14 November 1886 before the public premiere ten days later in Vienna.

The first movement exudes heroic spaciousness as well as extraordinary deconstructions of the main melodic ideas that reveal their fundamental essences. The lyrical second movement begins with the cello offering a countermelody, played pizzicato, to the piano’s unfolding line. It is in the key of F-sharp major, basically the black keys of the piano, which offers further colouristic effects. The energetic third movement, a scherzo, is built on a four-note motif, short-short-short-LONG (as is the scherzo of Brahms’s Piano Quintet). Heroism returns in this movement, as do metric layering and other sorts of temporal displacements. Its middle section is more dreamlike, perhaps as if observing a gentle summer’s evening. The lyrical final movement exudes typical Brahmsian Gemütlichkeit, the characteristic Viennese sense of warmth and good cheer that draws the work to its close.


Notes by William A. Everett

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