Imagine the kind of music Johannes Brahms might have written had he lived into the twentieth century. Chances are good that it might have sounded something like Samuel Barber’s Cello Sonata, Op. 6.
The Sonata’s harmonic language is firmly rooted in the twentieth century, even as it renounces the prevailing twelve tone atonality in favor of C minor. At the same time, its melodic construction, deep, rich piano voicing, and Romantic pathos follow the example of the music of Johannes Brahms. At one point, there is a quote from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Begun during a summer trip in Europe and completed at home in the United States, it is music which builds on tradition.
The 22-year-old Barber composed the Cello Sonata in 1932, following his graduation from Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. He dedicated the score to his teacher, Rosario Scalero. Accompanied by the composer at the piano, cellist Orlando Cole gave the official premiere on March 5, 1933.
The first movement bears a marking often used by Brahms: Allegro ma non troppo. Beginning with hushed intensity, the music develops in two note cells which combine to form expansive phrases filled with passion, suspense, and heroic struggle. The interval of the minor sixth is a recurring presence throughout the movement. The second theme brings warmth and transcendence.
The second movement combines an Adagio with a scherzo, a formal innovation found occasionally in the music of Beethoven and Brahms. It opens with a nostalgic and lamenting statement by the cello. Filled with surprising turns, the melody unfolds with a sense of seemingly endless expanse. The fleeting Presto section arrives suddenly as a spirited, lighthearted dialogue between the instruments. When the initial section returns, it reaches for the kind of unattainable climax we experience in Barber’s iconic Adagio for Strings. Only in the final cadence does tension release into quiet repose.
The blazing and tempestuous atmosphere of the final movement’s opening is reflected in its marking, Allegro appassionato. It opens the door to an instrumental conversation which is sometimes introspective, and at other times high-spirited. The movement arrives at a conclusion which is both stormy and heroic.
This recording, which comes from a 2021 album titled Muse, features the British brother-sister duo, Sheku Kanneh-Mason (cello) and Isata Kanneh-Mason (piano):
I. Allegro ma non troppo:
II. Adagio – Presto:
III. Allegro appassionato:
- Barber: Cello Sonata, Op. 6, Sheku Kanneh-Mason, Isata Kanneh-Mason Amazon
- Gregor Piatigorsky and Ralph Berkowitz
- Orlando Cole and Vladimir Sokoloff (1973 recording)
Featured Image: “Mill by the River, Fall” (1925), John Fulton Folinsbee