Sonata for cello & piano

forces: Violoncello, Piano
duration: 47'00"
published by: Composer

The Cello Sonata underwent revision in 2001, involving some shortening of all four movements. The CD recording available from Guild (GMCD 7141) is of the unrevised, original text. The revised work was first performed at the 35th annual Mananan [Isle of Man] Festival of Music and the Arts on 20th June 2009 by Raphael Wallfisch and Stephen Coombs. This performance was broadcast on BBC Radio Three the following August.

Composers' Note

This work had an unusually long gestation. Wishing to compose something in memory of my father, who had died from cancer in 1983, I made repeated attempts at the exercise for some years. Sharing Gerald Finzi’s belief that compositional problems are solved less by will power than by time, in the course of intermittent onslaughts I advanced no further than the end of the first movement by 1994. Meanwhile, shoals of lesser works swam by. The overall plan of the Sonata and its thematic matter had existed in essence since1984, and my slowness resulted not from lack of urgency, but from a sense that l had yet to acquire the requisite musical language. Nonetheless the style is unrepentantly romantic in its essentials, as befits a work whose more objective frame of reference is the ‘cello’s mainstream antecedence of Brahms, Rachmaninov, Elgar and others. As such, it may be taken or left by listeners who respectively accept what it is not trying to do or expect all music to put its back into advancing the frontiers of modernism. The Scherzo was written relatively quickly during 1994, but by early 1995 I was as stuck as ever with the predominantly slow finale. Then, in March that year, my mother died, suddenly and in my absence. Full of life and an almost alarming energy, she had seemed years younger than her threescore-and-ten. I make no apology for paying tribute here to a human being whose warmth and kindness were legend; the memory of whose joyous eccentricities, earthy humour and famously irrational intolerances called forth laughter even during an address at her funeral. The last movement of the Sonata fought its own way out, in exceptionally unpromising practical circumstances, during April and May. In emotional terms it is the product of sharper memory than what precedes it, despite fulfilling a preconceived overall plan. Some observations on content are in order. There are many obvious aspects of cyclic form (wherein themes recur in old or changed guises in successive movements). The simple consonant chords which open the work suggest the area of B minor but enable no clear tonal orientation. After a withdrawn and abstracted first statement by the ‘cello, a faster tempo is established. A theme derived from the opening articulates a crucial tritonal relationship before a substantial transition passage leads to a broad first climax, and thence to a second subject precariously anchored to F minor. The tritonal key relationship of the two main themes reflects the outline of the first and also a general ambivalence of governing tonality which persists until the end of the work. In the course of an extensive development section a new motif assumes progressive significance. This consists or a rising semitone, perfect fifth and further semitone, followed by a descending whole tone. Exploration of these themes brings about a central climax. A varied recapitulation presents the principal subjects in reverse order while also finding ways to blur the distinction between them by superimposition. The exposition’s climax is echoed briefly but recedes into a retrospective glimpse of the work’s opening. The dynamic level is given little space in which to subside, and this – together with a tonally inconclusive ending in D minor – aims to suggest unfinished argument. As a whole, the movement owes something to the ‘Cello Sonata by Frank Bridge, a transitional work which prefigures that composer’s astringent music of the late nineteen twenties and early thirties.   The Scherzo is a compound of many influences, and was somewhat recast structurally in the course of revision in 2001. Its dimensions acknowledge the precedent of Beethoven’s great A major Sonata, opus 69, while the energy of the main theme may recall Shostakovich. After a piano solo introduction it is composed of two sections of more or less equal length, the second being succeeded by slower material amounting to a trio section. A compressed return of the faster music leads to a continuation of the trio music, and thence to an impassioned climax. A headlong further Allegro abruptly dissipates in a retrospective coda marked sognando (dreaming). The ending is abrupt and elusive. A lengthy unaccompanied ‘cello cadenza follows. Past themes are revisited and, thanks to the piano’s silence, subsumed ultimately into an introspective stillness which lays the ground for the finale (launched by the piano’s reawakening). This begins as an Adagio. In the manuscript score appear these lines by the Second World War poet Alun Lewis: Out of the depths of the sea Love cries and cries in me. And summer blossoms break above my head With all the unbearable beauty of the dead. The music unfolds in a rhapsodically songful fashion without losing sight of the principal motifs already mentioned, including references to scherzo material, now sometimes in inverted form. An accompanying rhythm like a funereal drumbeat emerges as well, eventually forming the background to an increasingly restless restatement of the opening theme. This is abruptly cut off and an acceleration leads to an Allegro characterised by driving rhythms and extensive reference to the thematic forms of the first movement. At the climax of this section a theme from the preceding slow music is heard fortissimo in the upper register of the ‘cello. The movement thus far has attempted a consistently escalating dramatic curve. It now broadens into the principal climax of the movement and of the entire work, a prolonged lament. This inhabits the tonal area of B minor, the first sound heard in the work. The climax subsides at length into an Epilogue where the repeated chord device from the work’s opening is at last re-established, all passion spent, beneath a ‘cello cantilena. A valedictory reference from the trio music of the scherzo is heard. Just when the music seems doomed to final extinction it flickers back to life in a distant echo of the Allegro, before an ending of enigmatic suddenness which ultimately confirms B minor as sovereign key. Elgar may again come to mind, this time through his ‘Cello Concerto’s final pages. The Sonata is a long work: as such, fair game for adverse reaction particularly from anyone feeling out of sympathy with its conservative aesthetic. While this much is freely acknowledged, the length has arisen less from emotional incontinence than from inherent risks in the structure – these increasing wherever sonata-based motivic development is allied to a natura1 leaning towards contrapuntal possibilities. A design justified on grounds of logic may not of itself result in a perfect solution of dramatic problems. These considerations have jostled one another for a long time, however. Like Vaughan Williams commenting on his Fourth Symphony, I can now say only that ‘I don’ t know whether I like it, but it’s what I meant at the time’.

Composers' Note


  The major work here is the ‘Cello Sonata, an extended elegiac composition, emotionally charged, making full and fine use of the cello’s expressive capabilities. This may be one of the finest ‘cello sonatas to come out of the British Isles this century. The two solo piano works are in the best tradition of modern romanticism – both highly evocative sea pieces, owing something perhaps, to late Frank Bridge.

Records International, 1998

Full of original thought and emotive music of considerable power, … without a score for such a big work it is necessary to write subjectively, but the Sonata’s richly coherent structure is impressive enough. …In the top rank of significant British chamber music of recent decades. …I would warmly recommend this disc to all lovers of English chamber music.

British Music Society News 79, September 1998




Farewell to Hirta

David Watkin - Cello, Howard Moody - Piano, Francis Pott - Piano

Guild GMCD 7141  x   1997

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