Elizabeth Dolin is a distinguished member of the Canadian symphonic and chamber music communities. As associate principal cellist of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra for three seasons, she established a [...]
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Debussy: Sonata for Cello and Piano in D Minor
A three month stay at the seaside at “mon coin,” (Pourville) in the summer of 1915, brought forth a great burst of creative energy in Claude Debussy. This resulted in the composition of the Sonata for cello and piano. During this time the composer wrote: “I must humbly admit to the feeling of latent death within me. Accordingly, I write like a madman or like one who is condemned to die the next morning.” Indeed, Debussy’s desire to defy death through his musical output was spurred on by the outbreak of the War in 1914, the recent death of his mother, his own fight with cancer and severe bouts of depression. It was Debussy’s desire to return to pure music and traditional forms that motivated the composition of the work in 1915. Unlike his contemporaries, Debussy’s exploration of Neo-Classicism did not draw upon earlier German models, but was rather inspired by purely nationalistic tendencies which sought to resurrect the old French style.
Accordingly, these sonatas were signed “Claude Debussy, musicien français” and were to be engraved with ornamentation in the old French style. Though objective and traditional in form, there is an undeniable sense of dramatic content in the cello sonata that evokes joyful, sarcastic and facetious imagery. It is no wonder then that Debussy had originally conceived of the title “Pierrot fâché avec la lune” (Pierrot angry with the moon). The first movement is marked by a certain simplicity and grace that is demonstrative of the French style. Here, the two motives that are presented first by the piano, then the cello provide the material for the remainder of the work. The second movement entitled Sérénade, is appropriately imbued with playfulness: the cello imitates a guitar, mandolin, flute and tambourine, perhaps suggesting Pierrot’s desperate efforts to seduce his beloved. The exotic colours, pizzicato passages and Habanera rhythms confer a Spanish tone on this movement. The Finale which follows the Sérénade without pause, demonstrates a freedom of spirit through its folk-like melody and its rhythmic drive. After a brief flowing passage con morbidezza, the tone of confidence and optimism of the previous material is reinstated.
Rachmaninoff: Sonata for Piano and Cello in G Minor, Opus 19
In a letter to Modest Tchaikovsky in June 1900, Sergei Rachmaninov wrote: “Two years have passed since I was with you at Klin, and in those two years, apart from one song, I have not composed a single note. Overall I have absolutely lost my facility to compose, so it seems, and all my thoughts are directed towards getting it back.” The daily visits that Rachmaninov made to Dr. Nikolay Dahl, a specialist in hypnotherapy, were what proved to revive his creativity and finally lift his depression. A new surge of energy triggered the composition of the Sonata for Piano and Cello in 1901. The work was premiered on December 2, 1901 by cellist Anatoly Brandukov, with Rachmaninov himself at the piano.
Performing the part of the piano is a huge technical and virtuosic feat, while the cello satisfies an almost archetypal soulful and lyrical role. It is the drama and excitement of this musical interaction that defines this work as a duo in the truest sense. The Sonata consists of four expansive and rhythmically contrasting movements. After a slow and pensive introduction, the first movement presents a bold theme which is then contrasted with a more expressive second theme. The strongly rhythmic scherzo which follows features a counter-melody in the cello, flavoured in a Russian style. It is in the slow movement that some of the most songful and heart-warming music is found. Here, the cello decoratively weaves along until one climax gives way to a further expansion. A second climactic area then ensues, in which the pianist seemingly exhausts the entire range of the instrument.
Janácek: Pohádka (Fairy Tale) for Cello and Piano
Leos Janácek based Fairy Tale for cello and piano on the epic poem by Vasili Andreyevich Zhukóvsky, entitled The tale of Czar Berendey, of his son the Czarevich Ivan, of the intrigues of Kaschey the Immortal and the wisdom of the Princess Marya, Kaschey’s daughter. Fairy Tale appears at a time in Janácek’s œuvre when he was becoming increasingly conscious of his Slavic origins, displaying an avid interest in his native folk idiom by collecting Moravian folk songs and transcribing their tunes, words, and instrumentation.
The story on which Fairy Tale is based involves a Czar Berendey, who promises his new-born son to Kaschey the Immortal, Ruler of the Underworld. Upon reaching adulthood, the Czar informs his son Ivan of the fateful promise and the young Czarevich dutifully accepts his fate by setting out to meet Kaschey. One evening, he stumbles upon thirty silver ducklings swimming in a lake and sees thirty white gowns on the shore. The young man steals one of the gowns. The ducklings swim to the shore to put on their gowns, magically transforming into beautiful maidens. After allowing the thirtieth duckling to conduct a futile search, the Czarevich returns the gown, only to see the duckling change into the most exquisite of the maidens – Princess Marya, the daughter of Kaschey the Immortal! The two fall instantly in love and after various magical adventures that test their bond and release the Czarevich from Kaschey’s powers, Ivan returns happily with Marya to his father’s house.
Although it is impossible to trace each intricate plot element in the Fairy Tale, it has been suggested that the Czarevich is personified by the cello while the princess is represented through the piano. The fairy-tale ambience of this work is instilled in each movement’s conclusion, which features a dissolving, or “vanishing” of the part writing.
© Alexis Luko, July 2001, for Traçantes, writing and translation services of the Société québécoise de recherche en musique.