Ludwig van Beethoven was a young man when he wrote his first two – of five in all – cello sonatas. He premiered them himself with the skilled amateur cellist Jean-Pierre Duport, a musician at the court of King Frederick William II of Prussia. Beethoven was an aspiring 25-year-old trying to make a breakthrough as a pianist, as is evident from these sonatas. Occasionally they appear more to be piano sonatas with a cello part than cello sonatas with piano accompaniment. The music took Berlin audiences by storm while also eliciting some shocked gasps. Previously the piano part for cello sonatas was not written out but merely a figured bass. Beethoven was not known as a sensitive musician: while moving his audience to tears with the beauty of his improvisations, he could interrupt his playing with a sudden outburst of laughter, shouting: ‘You imbeciles!’ In the final movement of the first sonata we are reminded of one of his favourite tricks: towards the end of the movement we are led to expect the music to come to rest in a poetic ending, whereupon it suddenly awakens from the idyll and rushes off to a noisy finale.
It was 69 years later that Grieg moved to Christiania (as Oslo was called at the time), where he joined forces with other good performers in an attempt to set up a music academy. He was strongly involved in efforts for Norwegian artists to be able to train in their home country. When the academy opened in January 1867, Grieg taught theory and score reading. Even though it closed after a mere couple of years, it was the start of the first Norwegian conservatoire. It was during this period that he wrote his Intermezzo for Cello and Piano. The manuscript suggests that it was conceived as a movement in a larger work.
Many of Grieg’s sonatas have second movements capable of functioning as independent works, containing as they do musical material and dynamic contrasts that blend together to create a perfect whole. Grieg himself re-worked the second Allegretto movement of his third Violin Sonata opus 45 for cello as a birthday present for his brother John. Here too we find the fresh, natural expression so typical of Grieg’s melodies, later accepted as typically Norwegian intonation.
The Cello Sonata was completed in the winter of 1882–83, commissioned by his good friend and publisher at Peters’, Max Abraham. The publishing house offered Grieg three thousand marks for a new piano concerto, some piano pieces, a concert overture and a new sonata. A new piano concerto never transpired unfortunately, but Cello Sonata opus 36 did. Though Grieg dedicated it to his brother John, it was premiered by another cellist with Grieg himself at the piano. Grieg later played the work with the legendary Spanish cellist Pablo Casals. It may be perceived as somewhat masculine, as its extroversion is almost physical to a degree previously unknown. At the same time there is a strong presence of the lyrical and feminine. In the main theme of the second movement Grieg gradually fills the canvas with his own personal melodic character, pure and natural, like a mountain maid singing without inhibition. As in Beethoven’s cello sonatas, Grieg’s piano part almost constitutes a piano sonata in its scope and technical demands on a virtuoso pianist. The Cello Sonata is amongst the most contrasting of Grieg’s works, and has become standard repertoire for the cello.
Text: Annabel Guaita
English version: Roger Martin