Barber’s Cello Sonata: Echoes of Brahms

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 StringsOnly 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:


Featured Image: “Mill by the River, Fall” (1925), John Fulton Folinsbee

About Timothy Judd

A native of Upstate New York, Timothy Judd has been a member of the Richmond Symphony violin section since 2001. He is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music where he earned the degrees Bachelor of Music and Master of Music, studying with world renowned Ukrainian-American violinist Oleh Krysa.

The son of public school music educators, Timothy Judd began violin lessons at the age of four through Eastman’s Community Education Division. He was a student of Anastasia Jempelis, one of the earliest champions of the Suzuki method in the United States.

A passionate teacher, Mr. Judd has maintained a private violin studio in the Richmond area since 2002 and has been active coaching chamber music and numerous youth orchestra sectionals.

In his free time, Timothy Judd enjoys working out with Richmond’s popular SEAL Team Physical Training program.

1 thought on “Barber’s Cello Sonata: Echoes of Brahms”

  1. The Kenneth-Masons’ performance is unusually soulful. It’s a quality that seems far less common in today’s performance landscape than in prior eras.


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