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‘I’ve tried my Sonata with cello a little with Franchomme, and… very well. I don’t know whether I’ll have time to have it printed this year…’

This information comes in a letter Chopin wrote to his family from Paris towards the end of 1845. A year later, however, in a letter sent from Nohant, we learn that there was not yet any question of even completing the work, let alone having it printed: ‘Regarding my Sonata with cello, I’m now happy, now not. I throw it into a corner, and then pick it up again…’

Work on the G minor Sonata took up the autumn days of 1846 at Nohant. It was work filled with doubts and hesitation, difficult decisions and arduous labours. Those labours are attested by almost two hundred pages of sketches for this work, not counting the thirty-page manuscript. It was not until the summer of 1847 that Chopin considered work on the G minor Sonata to be completed. In June, he sold the work to the Leipzig publisher Breitkopf. As a result, in June, he was able to inform his nearest and dearest in Warsaw that ‘as regards my music, I shall now be printing my Sonata with cello…’

The final decisions concerning the shape and expression of the G minor Sonata – an unquestionable masterwork, a pinnacle of the last (post-Romantic) phase in the Chopin oeuvre – matured in the atmosphere of his split with George Sand and the incidents connected with the marriage of her daughter. Chopin’s post-romanticism brought a foretaste of the style that would come to prominence during the second half of the century, in the music of Brahms and Tchaikovsky, Dvořák and Franck, Grieg and Mahler. In Chopin, it manifested itself as a new style. His previous style – the quintessential Chopin – could be found in the ballades, scherzos and nocturnes, in the two great sonatas (the B flat minor and the B minor), in the Warsaw concertos and the Parisian mazurkas and polonaises.

This new style, which was also his ‘last’, astonished observers with its otherness – tangible, but hard to define. In this music, existing properties and tendencies appear to be intensified, while features previously non-existent or hidden are made manifest. Thus one may speak, on one hand, of an increased chromaticisation of the melodic line, more complex harmonic relations in the polyphonising of texture and a disturbance of form. On the other hand, we occasionally note a distinctive simplicity to the melody, texture and expression that is rather curious in this context, as it evokes the innocent years of early romanticism. Then rising above those properties, those contrasting aspects of this music, is an aura that links them together: elegiac, melancholic, nostalgic, surmounted by accents of elation and hope, expressions of dignity and inner strength.

The Sonata in G minor, composed for piano and cello, juxtaposes those two worlds, but also combines them: one evoked by remembrance of the past and the other imagined – looking into the future.

With regard to the overall form, architecture or dramatic structure of this work, the G minor Sonata follows the path of the previous piano sonatas (in C minor, B flat minor and B minor). It is a sonata that is Romantic par excellence, albeit derived from a Classical model. It comprises four movements that are distinctly contrasted in terms of expression and character: an opening sonata allegro, with ballade-like features, a closing rondo, marked by a dance character, and between them a Scherzo and a song-like Largo.

It is not difficult to discover that the opening themes of all four movements begin with an analogous interval structure. In this way, Chopin’s Sonata anticipates a composition practice that will become popular during the second half of the century, known as the principle of ‘cyclic unity’.

The first presentation of the motif that is writ large in this work as a sort of ‘motto’ is brought by the opening theme of the Allegro – first in the piano and a moment later, with the utmost distinction, in the cello. A moment’s pause, and then the opening theme is heard in the cello, sung in a full, but gentle voice. It sounds like a song being hummed on a march. Just a few more bars and then the Allegro’s principal theme sings out in the cello. It is accompanied, complemented and counterpointed by the piano. But the next moment it is the piano that takes over the lead in this increasingly emotional dialogue. In ecstatic flight, the main theme passes onto another tonal layer (C minor) and reaches a peak. In one of the manuscripts, it is characterised with the term maestoso. In this Sonata, too, the themes come in groups. For example, the group of the first theme closes with the supplicatory phrases of the final theme. A moment of hushed expectancy arises. The ‘response’, brought by the opening phrases of the lyrical second theme (B flat major), is quiet and collected.

After a while, this theme also starts to develop into a continuous dialogue. That dialogue picks up a head of steam and the agitation increases, before descending a moment later into a hushed, intimate exchange of ideas. And only now does the narrative of the sonata allegro approach the end of the exposition; that is, the presentation of the figures among which the next two acts of the sonata drama will be played out – the development and the reprise. Before paving the way to the further parts of the Allegro, the last bars of the exposition seem to pull themselves free of the framework that holds them.

The Sonata’s second movement, the Scherzo, though played out in a gloomy key (D minor), initially seems to bring some amusement – playing between the two instruments. The Scherzo’s main theme recurs insistently, interrupted at times by the piano figuration. This amusement takes on a succession of forms, but there comes a point when it turns into a rather disturbing game. The Scherzo has a symmetrical design. Its middle section is filled by a trio (in the parallel key of D major). It brings a surprise, as it unfurls a cantabile sung by the cello to the piano’s harp-like accompaniment. Such a cantabile might have been written by Dvořák or Tchaikovsky. If the performers manage to avoid slipping into a sentimental tone, then the listener is lifted into a thoughtful world of pure, inviolate remembrance. But this was just a foretaste. We are fully transported to a faraway world by the Largo (movement III).

It could have been written by Gustav Mahler (compare the Adagietto from his Symphony No. 5). The slow tempo and unusual metre (3/2) mean that this naïve, childishly simple melody is listened to in rapt contemplation. It gazes at the most distant horizons, but is delivered with an echo of the past. A new idea arrives, as if summoned from afar. The last bars seem to convey a tone of farewell, pointing to the other side.

The Allegro finale brings the listener back down to earth. In its tempo, movement, gesture and vigour, it is quite simply riveting. In this dialogue, the two instruments play equal roles. The opening theme, which is also the principal subject, appears in various guises, even though this is a rondo. This rondo finale has a gradational character. As the narrative unfolds, the tension mounts, and the opening theme undergoes successive modifications. The episodes are quite extraordinary, like visitors from another world. The initially timid melody gains self-confidence when repeated. Given to two-note chords in the cello part, it sounds as if it were written by Brahms. Towards the end of the rondo, the theme of the episode returns in a different guise. The music of the finale swings along in the lively tempo and rhythm of a tarantella. One of the themes also displays tarantella-like melodic features. And with this precipitous theme, sounding no longer in the melancholy G minor, but in the bright G major, Chopin concludes his final sonata.

It is difficult to believe, but the first public performance of the Sonata in G minor, in Chopin’s last public concert in Paris, on 16 February 1848, in which Chopin performed the work with Auguste Franchomme, was reduced to three movements. The first movement was omitted. One of Chopin’s pupils, Camille O’Meara, explained the reason for this surprising decision. Apparently, the opening Allegro had failed to win over the friends who were present at the work’s earlier presentations, at home; it was perceived to be ‘overloaded and not very clear’. It is even more difficult to believe that throughout the whole of the nineteenth century the Cello Sonata was considered a rather ‘un-Chopin-like’ work, and poorly written to boot.

The negative opinions began with Ignaz Moscheles, who joked of ‘the player knocking at the door of every key and clef to find if any melodious sounds are at home’[i]. Frederick Niecks, whose voice carried considerable weight, saw in the Sonata only ‘effort, painful effort’. He called the allegro and rondo ‘immense wildernesses with only here and there a small flower’. Even Władysław Żeleński donnishly observed ‘the same flaws as in the piano sonatas, and even less inventiveness’. The Sonata also failed to convince either Ferdynand Hoesick or James Huneker.

Only Zdzisław Jachimecki, in 1927, had the courage to challenge that aversion. He was followed by others. Jachimecki considered the music of the Cello Sonata to be considerably ahead of its time, and thereby showing a different Chopin from the one to which the musical world had been accustomed.

When performed by masters, the Sonata in G minor is absorbing, riveting, from the very first bar to the last. Composed at a difficult time in Chopin’s life, it thrills, astonishes and delights us with its rare beauty and with the harsh, bitter wisdom that shows through the notes.

[i] Charlotte Moscheles, Life of Moscheles, adapted from the German by A. D. Coleridge (London, 1873), ii:172.

Author: Mieczysław Tomaszewski
[Cykl audycji "Fryderyka Chopina Dzieła Wszystkie"]
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Sonata in G minor for piano and cello, Op. 65
Allegro moderato
Sonata in G minor for piano and cello, Op. 65
Scherzo. Allegro con brio
Sonata in G minor for piano and cello, Op. 65
Sonata in G minor for piano and cello, Op. 65
Finale. Allegro
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