Music Notes for March 20, 2022


Clive Greensmith, cello and Karen Joy Davis, piano

Sunday, March 20, 2022

Fantasy in F minor, D. 940 (1828) J.S. Bach
Fantasiestucke, Op. 73 (1849)

Zart und mit Ausdruck
Lebhaft, leicht
Rasch und mit Feuer
Robert Schumann
Sonata for cello and piano in A major, Op. 69 (1807-1808)

I. Allegro ma non tanto
II. Allegro molto
III. Adagio cantabile-Allegro vivace
Ludvig van Beethoven


Sonata for cello and piano in G minor, Op. 19 (1901)

I. Lento – Allegro moderato
II. Allegro scherzando
III. Andante
IV. Allegro mosso
Sergei Rachmaninoff


J.S. Bach from Suite No. 3 in C Major

Bach’s six suites for unaccompanied cello date from around 1720, when the composer was serving as Kapellmeister at the court of Anhalt-Cothen, about 30 miles north of Leipzig. In 1713, the frugal Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia dismissed his entire musical entourage, and a young music-loving prince in Antholt-Cothen took advantage of the opportunity to engage some of his finest musicians, providing them with excellent instruments and a library for their regular court performances.

When in 1717, Prince Leopold invited Johann Sebastian Bach, then Kapellmeister at Weimar, to become his director of music, Bach pleaded with his current employer, Duke Wilhem Ernst, to relieve him of his contract. The Duke’s response was to have him thrown in jail, where he remained for a month until released with a note of “unfavorable discharge.”

Once in Cothen, Bach found a superb group of musicians that would inspire him to produce a plethora of great instrumental work during his six years there, including the Brandenburg Concertos, the Well-Tempered Clavier, the French and English Suites for harpsichord, suites for orchestra, violin concertos and the Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello. Of these suites, not a single original manuscript in Bach’s hand has survived. The two primary sources were the copy made by Bach’s second wife, Anna Magdalena, and that of Johann Peter Kellner, a noted copyist of the time. But due to Magdalena’s proximity to the source, as well as her fine musicianship, it is her copy that is considered to be the more reliable of the two.

Before Bach composed his solo cello suites, cellists who wished to play solo had very little written music at their disposal. In the early 1700’s, the instrument was still thought of as suitable for playing bass lines rather than melodies. And yet, the debut of the remarkable cello suites did not set off a revolution to bring the cello into the fore. It was not until the 19th century that Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schumann and Brahms wrote chamber music featuring the cello’s lyrical capacity, and only in the 20th century did composers such as Kodaly and Britten actually compose a cello solo.

In fact, were it not for the curiosity and talent of a certain thirteen-year-old cellist, these great works might have been forever relegated to obscurity. It was the young Pablo Casals who

discovered the sheet music in a second-hand shop in Barcelona. Casals was a gifted prodigy, and was already performing throughout Spain. Yet rather than present his revelation to the public, he instead chose to work on the suites daily—for 10 years—before he finally played them in 1901. To this day, Casal’s recordings still stand as the universal reference point for the Bach Solo Suites.

In the 17th century, the Baroque suite was a free sequence of dance movements, but by the
mid-18th century, a standard set of four stylized dances had emerged in the German-speaking countries: the allemande, courante, sarabande and gigue, to which a composer might add more dances if desired. Bach opens each cello suite with a prelude that anticipates the mood of the dance movement, and he also includes an additional pair of dances between the sarabande and the gigue.

In the cello suites, Bach is multilingual; for example, we hear French music in the bourrée, Italian in the courante (correnti), Sicilian rhythm in the gigues, Spanish influence in the sarabandes, and German spirit in the allemandes. Bright and cheerful in character, the Suite No. 3 in C is composed of six movements, four of which we will hear in this concert.

Schumann Fantasiestucke for cello and piano, Op. 73

In many ways, Robert Schumann was the first truly romantic composer. In his attitude toward composition, he saw no reason to adhere to classical structure and what he considered its binding limitations. “As if all mental pictures must be shaped to fit one or two forms,” he declared. “As if each idea did not come into existence with its own form ready-made! As if each work of art had not its own meaning and consequently its own form!”

That was to become the romantic doctrine, but it was heresy when first asserted by Schumann. Out of the marriage of his own genius and this rule-breaking approach came the lyrical beauty, the incredible colors, sonorities and far-reaching emotions of his music—not unusual considering the huge intellectual and emotional range of the composer himself, even before his mental illness. The words most commonly used to describe his music are poetic, impetuous and whimsical, all expressions of states of being. Wrote one critic, “No composer has whispered such secrets of subtle and ravishing beauty to a receptive listener.
The [listener] of Schumann’s music should in turn be imaginative and a dreamer.”

While regarded as a consummate master of smaller forms, especially for piano and voice, Schumann also flourished in his larger form works. The large scale piano pieces Carnaval, Fantasie, Kreisleriana, Davidsbündler, and Ètudes Symphoniques all demonstrate his phenomenal originality, and his four symphonies, the piano and cello concertos, and the large-scale chamber pieces set new precedents as well. Almost all of his important
compositions were written in his younger years, when he was still passionately in love with his

wife, Clara, who in addition to being Schumann’s muse, was one of the greatest pianists of her day.

The years 1848 and 1849 were remarkably productive for Schumann: He wrote an opera, as well as multiple piano, choral and chamber works, including the Op. 73 Fantasiestucke for clarinet and piano (now played more often on cello). However, many biographers and medical doctors have speculated that this frenzy of activity, or “forced harvest,” was a consequence of the mental illness that would lead him to attempt suicide a few years later and consequently be hospitalized for the remainder of his life. Schumann himself admitted that his focus on the music chased away the “melancholy bats” that “buzzed” around him.

When Schumann composed his Op. 73 Fantasiestücke for clarinet and piano, he indicated not only the cello but also the viola as optional replacements for the wind instrument. The three small pieces that comprise Fantasiestücke are characteristic of his alternating whimsical/wistful and nostalgic/passionate moods. The indication attacca at the end of the first two pieces reveals that Schumann conceived all three as a continuous suite.

Beethoven Sonata for Cello and Piano in A major, Op. 69
Allegro ma non tanto
Scherzo – allegro molto
Adagio cantabile – Allegro vivace

Beethoven’s five sonatas for cello and piano are, in some respects, more significant as a group than his 10 sonatas for violin and piano. Whereas the first nine of the violin sonatas were all composed between 1797 and 1803, during his “first” period, with only the tenth coming later in 1812, the cello sonatas, though half as numerous, were written over a considerably longer span of time, 1796-1815. As a result, they give us a much more comprehensive view of Beethoven’s evolution as a composer (from his first through his second periods, from problems with hearing to total deafness), as well as the development of his conception of the duo sonata itself.
Furthermore, they stand as the earliest works of real importance for cello and piano, and the various compositional experiments that Beethoven made over the course of the five sonatas emphasize the problems he encountered with this new and virtually untried medium. The most immediate and challenging issue involved the balance between the two instruments; in the late 18th and beginning of the 19th century, Viennese pianos had very little sustain or tone compared to our present day instruments. It was only around 1813 that their design expanded to create a more powerful and resonant pianoforte, and this is reflected in Beethoven’s last cello sonata, Op. 102 No. 2, where he finally includes a full-fledged slow movement to allow the cellist the opportunity to indulge its main virtue of cantabile playing in the middle register without fear of overpowering the piano. Today, some might say that this problem is reversed, as our concert pianos are so powerful.

The Op. 69 cello sonata dates mainly from 1807, but was completed in 1808, and sold to the publisher Breitkopf and Hartel in 1809, in a “package” that included the Fifth Symphony and the Archduke Trio. It was dedicated to one of Beethoven’s closest friends, Baron Ignaz von Gleichenstein, who was also a gifted cellist. This sonata is one of the most original and perfectly achieved of his chamber works. The first movement’s two themes, both lyrical in quality, are begun by the cello and completed by the piano, and then repeated with the roles reversed. The opening theme remains unharmonized virtually throughout the first movement. The curiously obsessive second movement, Scherzo, is more noted for its striking syncopation than for its melody, and is followed by the brief yet eloquent Adagio Cantabile, which provides a lyrical pause between the rambunctious Scherzo and the lively Finale.

Rachmaninoff Sonata for Cello and Piano in G minor, Op.19

By the time he won the gold medal at the Moscow Conservatory for his opera Aleko, Sergei Rachmaninoff had already enjoyed a good deal of success as a pianist and composer, particularly with his Prelude in C sharp minor, Op. 23 No.1. In 1892, he organized a premiere of his newly written Symphony No. 1 to be held in St. Petersburg. Unfortunately, due to the insufficient preparation of the orchestra and the ambivalence and drunkenness of the conductor, Glazunov, the premiere was a disaster, with one critic calling the symphony “evil,” and stating that “it would delight Hell’s inhabitants.”

Rachmaninoff, 25-years-old at the time, was crushed by this unexpected and very public failure. His despair led to a bout of depression that prevented him from composing for nearly three years. Thanks to the help of physician Nikolai Dahl, who treated him with hypnosis and psychotherapy, Rachmaninoff was finally able to return to composing. He set about writing with renewed enthusiasm and confidence, and produced what would become one of his most enduringly popular pieces: the Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18, which he dedicated to Dahl. Unlike the fiercely negative reaction to his First Symphony, the Second Piano Concerto was a thorough triumph, garnering praise from critics and public alike.

In addition to the Second Piano Concerto, Rachmaninoff’s energetic and assured burst of creativity also produced an opera, the Suite No. 2 for Two Pianos, the Chopin Variations, and the Ten Preludes Op. 23 for piano, and the Sonata for Cello and Piano in G minor, Op. 19.
Although Rachmaninoff’s chamber music output is thin compared to the volume of his orchestral, voice and piano works, the Sonata for Cello and Piano—which was actually his last chamber work—stands in a league of its own, for its grandeur, breadth and brilliant innovation.

Conceived as an expansive four-movement piece, the sonata is often regarded as a more intimately scaled exploration of the same expressive territory covered in the Second Concerto, which is logical given the close proximity of the two compositions.

Rachmaninoff wrote the Sonata for Cello and Piano in early 1901, and dedicated it to his friend, the cellist Antoly Brandukov, with whom he would play its Moscow premiere on December 2 of that year, only three weeks after the premiere of his Second Piano Concerto. In both works the extraordinary versatility, resourcefulness and power of his piano writing are on full display, traits which lend the cello sonata much of its dramatic impact. The piano part is as difficult and spectacular as anything Rachmaninoff conjured up in his solo works, and there are moments when one fears that the cello might disappear in an avalanche of notes. That is not to say, however, that the cello itself is neglected as an expressive force; indeed, after the slow introduction, it is the cello which launches the sonata, with its passionate, yearning opening theme, and it is the cello that introduces the majority of the sonata’s splendorous tunes. The two instruments are continually balanced; while Rachmaninoff, himself a consummate pianist, was an ideal composer for the piano, there is no question that he found a robust and soulful voice in the cello for his inspired melodies. The Sonata is a huge canvas for both cello and piano, and one of the greatest works in the cello repertoire.