Edgar Moreau and Jessica Osborne Program Notes

 

Sonata for Cello and Piano (1940-48)

by Francis Poulenc (Paris, 1899 – Paris, 1963)

To many critics and listeners, Francis Poulenc was the voice of Paris, the city where he was born, lived, and died.  As a teenager, Poulenc was introduced to, and influenced by, figures like the composer Erik Satie and the poet Jean Cocteau, both strongly opposed to the artistic establishment of the day.  These contacts, and his admiration for Stravinsky, caused him to be rejected by the Paris Conservatory, which was as conservative as its name implied.  Aside from some private lessons with Charles Koechlin, Poulenc remained largely self-taught as a composer.  He soon found his niche with his unique combination of Stravinsky's neo-classicism and an unabashedly romantic sense of melody.

Poulenc began to work on his cello sonata in 1940 and completed the first two movements that year; the last two movements, however, were not written until 1948.  Dedicated to the great French cellist Pierre Fournier, the sonata was written in Poulenc's best gallant manner.  The opening “Tempo di Marcia” begins with a jaunty little melody that returns at the end, after a number of episodes, some of which are slower and more introspective than the main march tune.  In the second-movement “Cavatine,” the muted cello is enveloped in a “halo of sound” (Poulenc's words) by the chords of the piano, played with abundant pedal.  The expressive cello melody intensifies as the tempo moves forward; at the end, the peaceful mood of the beginning is restored.

The brilliant and witty third movement, marked “Ballabile” (Dance), contains some distant echoes of jazz, in evocation of the Roaring Twenties when jazz was all the rage in the Parisian cafés that Poulenc and his friends used to frequent.  The finale begins with a majestic dramatico-misterioso introduction that is quickly—and, as it seems, somewhat incongruously—brushed aside by a lively and frolicsome Presto.  Yet that serious tone was no accident:  it returns again when the cello sings an expressive melody in ¾ time.  The two sides of Poulenc's personality—one nonchalant, the other more austere—clash head-on in this remarkable finale, with startling results.

 

Sonata for Cello and Piano, Op. 119 (1949)

by Sergei Prokofiev (Sontsovka, Ukraine, 1891 – Moscow, 1953)

 At one time in the 1920s, Poulenc and Prokofiev were friends when the Russian composer lived in Paris; but when Prokofiev returned to the Soviet Union in the 1930s, they were separated and never saw each other again.  The two composers definitely had something in common in their new and sometimes irreverent treatment of classical forms.  But Prokofiev's Cello Sonata, written by a man plagued by ill health and shaken by a devastating denunciation by the Communist Party, has little time for levity.  That he had any energy to compose at all was largely thanks to the admiring friendship of the young Mstislav Rostropovich who, at 22, was already a star.  Encouraged by the cellist, Prokofiev began revising his Cello Concerto, Op. 58 which, as the Symphony-Concerto Op. 125, became the crowning achievement of his final years.  The Cello Sonata was also written for Rostropovich, who gave the first performance with Sviatoslav Richter on December 6, 1949.

Prokofiev's original manuscript bears an epigraph from Maxim Gorky's 1902 drama The Lower Depths:  “Man—that has a proud sound.”  The first movement begins with an unaccompanied cello melody in the lowest register of the instrument.  The tempo indication, revealingly, is “Andante grave.”  Is this a slow introduction or the beginning of a full-fledged movement in a slow tempo?  It is neither; instead, a curious sonata form emerges with two alternating thematic groups moving at different speeds.  The “Andante grave” is soon relieved by a “Moderato animato” section, characterized by a rhythmic motif announced by the cello.  Both thematic groups undergo extensive thematic development.  A virtuosic coda appears just before the end, but then the music unexpectedly calms down and the movement concludes with some ethereal cello harmonics.

By its form, the second movement is a scherzo, but its tempo is moderate rather than fast, and its playful themes are tinged with a shade of sadness.  (One of its themes has reminded commentators of Mercutio’s music from Romeo and Juliet.)  The trio section, marked “Andante dolce,” returns to the lyrical melodic style of the first movement’s slow parts.  Subsequently, the opening of the scherzo returns in an abbreviated form, but with some delicious cello harmonics added.

The shape of the finale’s main theme has some similarities with the last movement of Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony.  Light-hearted and playful at the beginning, this “Allegro ma non troppo” includes an expressive central episode in a slower tempo (“Andantino”), followed by the recapitulation.  Finally, the unaccompanied cello melody with which the first movement opened returns, played by both instruments in a grandiose manner. 

 

Violin Sonata in A major (1886)

by César Franck (Liège, 1822 – Paris, 1890)

arranged for cello by Jules Delsart (Valenciennes, 1844 – Paris, 1900)

 For many years, César Franck worked as an organist at Sainte-Clotilde, which was not one of Paris's most prestigious churches. His father had destined him for the career of a travelling piano virtuoso à la Franz Liszt.  The dreams, however, did not come true, and Franck had to settle for a less glamorous existence.  His first major break did not come until he was fifty; in 1872, he was appointed to the Paris Conservatoire as a professor of organ.  But even that did not necessarily mean success as a composer.  His large-scale oratorios and other sacred works failed to make an impression.  It was only during the last decade of his life that he wrote the series of masterpieces (including the A-major Sonata, the Symphony, and the String Quartet) for which he is remembered to this day.

The Sonata was written in 1886, as a wedding present for the great violinist Eugène Ysaÿe (1858-1931), like Franck a native of Liège, Belgium.  The first public performance was given by Ysaÿe and pianist Léontine Bordes-Pène in Brussels on December 16, 1886, at a concert devoted to Franck's works.  The Sonata had an enormous success.  The director of the Brussels Conservatoire congratulated the composer with the words:  "You have transformed chamber music:  thanks to you a new vision of the future has been revealed to our eyes."

The director was not exaggerating.  Franck had introduced into chamber music certain techniques never previously used in that medium.  Inspired by Liszt's symphonic poems, Franck linked the four movements of the Sonata together by a network of thematic recurrences.  The characters of the themes are sometimes fundamentally transformed in this process.  Franck also used counterpoint more extensively than did most Romantic composers—in part because, as an organ player, he was deeply immersed in the music of J.S. Bach.  Moreover, Franck had been touched by the style of Richard Wagner, who had died in 1883 but was still the most controversial modern composer in Europe.  In the Violin Sonata, Franck repeatedly used a variant of the famous "Tristan" chord.  He combined all these influences, however, with a boundless melodic invention all his own. 

The Sonata has an unusual movement sequence.  In most sonatas, the longest and weightiest movement comes at the beginning.  In the Franck sonata, this movement stands in second place, preceded by a dreamy "Allegretto ben moderato."  The passionate second movement is in the key of D minor that was often used to depict tempestuous emotions.  The third movement is a "Recitativo-Fantasia" that, in what was an extraordinary move in 1886, entirely dispenses with the idea of a main tonal center. The key changes constantly during the two unaccompanied cadenzas, separated by a nostalgic recollection of the first movement's opening melody on the piano.  The movement continues with an "aria" for violin that is in turn lyrical and dramatic, with a molto lento e mesto ("very slow and sad") ending.  Finally, the fourth movement crowns the Sonata with a real tour de force:  its initial melody is played by the two instruments in canon—that is, the melodic lines are the same, with the string instrument starting one measure after the piano.  The remaining themes come from the third movement, turning the "aria" into a major dramatic outburst.  A recapitulation of the canon theme and a short, exuberant coda ends this great sonata.

In 1888, Franck's friend and colleague at the Conservatoire, cellist Jules Delsart (1844-1900), arranged the sonata for cello and piano, with the composer's blessing.  Since then, the sonata has been one of the cornerstones of both the violin and the cello repertoire.

Peter Laki

 

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