A Royal Introduction

Beethoven Sonata for Piano and Cello Op. 5 No. 1

In 1796 Beethoven, at twenty-five years old, was an active concert pianist and as part of his Berlin tour he was invited to the royal palace by the king of Prussia, Friedrich Wilhelm II, a keen cellist and music lover. Haydn and Mozart had both dedicated string quartets with prominent cello parts to the king but Beethoven dared to go one better – he delivered the opus 5 cello sonatas nos. 1 and 2.Image

Beethoven premiered them at the palace with cellist Jean-Louis Duport, the younger of the two Duport brothers. The Duports were breaking new ground in cello technique and are credited with the invention of the cello spike which stabilises the instrument allowing for more virtuosic playing. It is clear that Beethoven sought advice as well as inspiration from the Duports as many of the virtuosic passages in his sonatas bear significant resemblance to the Duport etudes, which are still studied by cellists today.

The only previous examples of sonatas for keyboard and cello are those by Luigi Boccherini, yet these were simply for cello with continuo harpsichord accompaniment. Other lesser-known composers had written sonatas for the combination, but these are really piano sonatas with a practically superfluous cello part. Beethoven was the first to write a truly democratic work for cello and piano, with the instruments as equal partners. Cellos in Beethoven’s day had gut strings which make a softer sound than their modern steel counterparts and did not have the advantage of a high range like the violin. Part of Beethoven’s challenge in writing these works was to balance the cello with the piano which was advancing in sound and size all the time.

He begins the first cello sonata, the father of a genre, with a slow introduction. The piano and cello play a series of uncertain questioning fragments in unison, as if testing the water of their new roles. This opening is as unsettling for a modern audience as it was in the royal court of 1796 – there are as many rests as notes in this passage! A few bars later, the cello provides the perfect antidote for this unnerving beginning: a long sustained melody high in the tenor range, which brings to mind the seemingly endless sustaining powers of a professional singer. Later a flourishing piano cadenza temporarily puts an end to the equal partnership – Beethoven of course wrote the most impressive part for himself to play! –  and after a moment of uncertainty, we are launched into the Allegro which forms the bulk of the movement. This cheerful romp is interspersed with humorous episodes such as chains of off-beat accents, intended to confuse the audience’s sense of pulse. Of course Beethoven good-naturedly ends the joke and all becomes clear again. At the end of the movement, the momentum is arrested and the music seems to reminisce over the uncertain opening of the sonata. This time the questions are answered with a frantic Presto which builds up to a long rapid trill in both instruments, holding the tension unbearably!…

…and then launches joyfully into the Allegro theme we know so well for the end.

The F major sonata is in two movements unlike the piano and violin sonatas from the same period which are in three or four movements. It is however on a grand scale, in keeping with the royal prestige of its dedicatee.

The second movement is an exciting spectacle overflowing with virtuosic outbursts from both instruments. The boisterous energy is sustained almost all the way through with the occasional wistful lull where the cello holds long notes and the piano tinkles gently. For the most part, however, Beethoven’s music is not polite and would have been shocking to an audience used to the grace and elegance of Haydn and Mozart. He makes use of the earthiest sounds a cello can make with loud scrubbing effects deep in the register. Near the end of the piece, Beethoven slows down almost to a standstill and then jolts his audience out of that trance with a cascade of brilliance and grand heroic ending.

Beethoven’s genius is such that he simultaneously achieves a superb exploration of the capabilities of the cello, a fantastic display of his own extraordinary keyboard skills and all within a wonderful example of his mastery as a composer. Thus Beethoven introduces himself to King Wilhelm II, but more importantly he introduces a new genre, the sonata for piano and cello.

Britten’s Suite for Cello, Op. 72

Backstage at the Royal Festival Hall, Rostropovich had just given the London première of Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto. Britten, personally invited into the green room by Shostakovich, soon committed himself to writing a cello sonata which he duly completed and then recorded with Rostropovich in 1961. This was the beginning of one of the most fruitful composer-performer relationships of the twentieth century. Within a few years, Britten completed his Cello Symphony, which remains a giant of the cello concerto repertoire. The three solo suites were written over the next ten years and are widely considered to be the greatest addition to the solo repertoire since J.S. Bach’s six suites.

Rostropovich, Oistrakh, Britten and Shostakovich

In 1964 Britten presented Rostropovich with the Suite for Cello op. 72 as a Christmas present, inspired by a performance of Bach’s cello suites. This large work is in six diverse movements, split into pairs by three ‘canto’ movements which function like the Promenades from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition– always recognisable but appearing in new guises with the development of the suite. They help to guide the listener through this complex piece – Britten was clearly aware of the challenges of understanding solo cello music in this style. Despite having never played the cello, Britten achieves superbly idiomatic writing as he stretches the instrument to the limits of possibility.

Canto Primo

The piece opens with the optimistic Canto Primo, full of rhetorical gesture and dramatic harmonic tension-and-release. Britten thickens the texture by using double-stops throughout, often writing out three-note spread chords. It fades away to a glimmering D major and out of the brief silence, the first of our six movements emerges: Fuga.

The writing of fugues found a new vogue in the twentieth century, most notably with Hindemith’s Ludus Tonalis, and Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues op. 87. Both these composers were directly inspired by Bach’s monumental benchmark: Das Wohltemperierte Klavier. None of Bach’s solo cello suites include fugal movements, because they are structured traditionally as dance suites, but he was not averse to writing fugues for other string instruments: each of his solo violin sonatas begins with a Prelude and Fugue pairing. Britten includes fugal movements in all three of his solo cello suites, recognising the advancement of cello technique that took off during the twentieth century, and rises impeccably to the challenge of creating a fugue for an instrument most suited to the realisation of one line. The cellist’s task is to bring out the different voices by variation of the tone quality and careful phrasing. The subject is exposed and developed, growing to an explosion which rapidly falls away into glassy harmonics, a ghost of its former self. Britten follows this movement with the Lamento, a simple song which blends straight into the Canto Secondo: Britten’s second use of his ‘Canto’ theme is this time suffused with melancholy.

The fiery Serenata springs out of the ashes and is played entirely by plucking the string with both hands. It has an unmistakably Spanish character and Britten uses the cello like a guitar with cross-rhythms rooted in flamenco traditions. Like its fellows, this movement outlines a clear journey, culminating in a breathless ascent to a solitary top A, with the piercing feeling of thin air and bright clarity only experienced at extreme altitude.

Britten’s next movement is another dance – the Marcia begins with the bugle calls and drums of an approaching military band, achieved by tapping the wood of the bow on the string – col legno. The music gets closer and closer until a powerful singing outburst obliterates the martial precision of the opening. The marching band is soon heard again, already retreating palely into the distance, defeated. The ensuing Canto Terzo marks a new milestone of the suite, building to a passionate climax with clashing discords and then fades away, appeased, to a deserted open D string.


This note becomes the drone for the ensuing Bordonean eclectic movement paying homage both to the Baroque style of monodic recitative over a droning bass and Balinese tuning and texture. Britten toured Japan and Indonesia in 1955-6 and integrated material borrowed from Japanese, Indian and Balinese music with his own style in subsequent works. The Prince of the Pagodas (1957), for example, is scattered with gamelan techniques from Bali.

Finally the devilish Moto Perpetuo e Canto Quarto explodes out of this meditative stasis, a flurry of chromaticism, which surges up and down, spinning across the range of the instrument. Suddenly, the Canto Quarto bursts through, and its dazzling sunlight battles to and fro with the determined flood of notes. As we approach the end, the two themes are blurred and then united for the final gallop to the finish.

Benjamin Britten

Britten composed his Suite for Cello with a performance of Bach’s six suites imprinted on his mind. Despite the greatness of this music, the most powerful aspect of his inspiration must have been Rostropovich’s phenomenal virtuosity and vitality of expression, blessing these pieces with a theatricality and communicative force unsurpassed in music for solo cello.

Recommended recordings:

Mstistlav Rostropovich ‘Britten Cello Suites 1 & 2’

Alexander Baillie ‘Britten Cello Sonata, Suite No. 1

© Joy Lisney 2012