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Cello Xtravaganza - Program

G. Cassado (1897-1966): Suite for Solo Cello

Gaspar Cassadó is hardly a household name, but he was one of the great cellists of the twentieth century, active as a performer, composer and transcriber for his instrument. Born in Barcelona in 1897, he was discovered at the age of nine by a young Catalan cellist just starting out on his career, the 21-year-old Pablo Casals, and Gaspar was accepted to study with him in Paris on a scholarship from his native city. During his long studies with Casals in Paris, he absorbed the many aesthetic crosswinds blowing through the French capital, coming to admire the spiky modernism of Stravinsky, the impressionism of Ravel, and the Spanish nationalist sentiments of Manuel Da Falla.


Among the strongest influences on him, however, came from Casals’ championing of the Bach suites for solo cello, which certainly influenced the composition of his own Suite for Solo Cello, composed in 1926. Cassadó himself never recorded the work, and it lay dormant for half a century until it was popularized by cellist Janos Starker in the 1980s. Cassadó’s student Marçal Cervera, who studied the piece with him, says that it represents in its three movements three important cultural regions of Spain: Castilla-La Mancha, Catalonia and Andalusia.


Cassadó’s Suite for Solo Cello combines the Baroque formalism and dance orientation of Bach’s suites with his own native Spanish flair. The first movement begins, á la Bach, with a free preludium that evolves into a zarabanda, a dignified Spanish dance related to the Baroque sarabande. The movement quotes Zoltán Kodaly’s Sonata for Cello Solo and, reflecting Cassadó’s studies with Ravel, makes extensive use of the motive that begins the famous flute solo from the ballet Daphnis et Chloe.


The second movement is written in the form of a two-part sardana. Beginning with a characteristicly slow, introductory section (in classic saradanas the first tirada was danced with the arms down), the music soon breaks into an animatedly rustic dance in 2/4 (the second tirada was usually danced with the arms up). The jauntily rhythmic flavor of the movement makes this the most overtly “danceable” of the three.


Cassadó continues to honor antique Spanish folkdance styles by basing the final movement largely on the jota, a dance originally performed in colorful costumes and accompanied by castanets. The movement begins slowly with a ruminative intermezzo featuring lyrical, five-beat phrases. The intermezzo gradually gives way to the more vigorous, swinging jota. The movement alternates between the introspection of the intermezzo and the extroverted, flamenco-like jota, bringing the suite to a lively, Spanish-style conclusion.

By Michael Parloff


K. Penderecki (1933-2020): Prelude for Solo Cello

The Preludio is the first movement of eight of Penderecki’s Suite for Solo Cello, yet it was the last movement to be premiered at the fifth International Paolo Competition in 2013. What is unique about the Preludio is the amount of interpretive license it allows the cellist. There are no bar lines, no real meter, and the written dynamics are sparse. However, Penderecki explores a whole range of sounds on the cello, some more conventional and reminiscent of folk songs and others maybe heard in an electric guitar solo.


L. Boccherini (1743-1805): Cello Sonata in A major “L’Imperatrice”

Boccherini achieved widespread recognition in his day both as a cellist and as an extremely prolific composer primarily of chamber music. He wrote more than 100 string quintets, close to 100 string quartets, and some 150 other chamber works, including more than thirty cello sonatas. He was and is especially celebrated for his string quintets in the two-violin, viola, two-cello configuration, contributing more to the genre than any other composer in history.


The many gaps in our knowledge of Boccherini’s life and works were widened by the destruction of many of his manuscripts and his own thematic catalog in 1936 in Madrid during the Spanish Civil War—he had spent much of his life as a court composer in Madrid. Furthermore, some information long held to be true has been cast into doubt. During the years 1787 to 1796, for instance, he was assumed to have been in Prussia on the strength of an appointment there and a letter by him from Breslau. Since the letter now appears unauthentic and there is no record of him at the Prussian court, he probably remained in Spain, living on his royal pension and earning a Prussian salary by fulfilling his obligations long distance. He did compose for King Friedrich Wilhelm of Prussia, the same cello-playing king for whom Mozart and Haydn wrote quartets and Beethoven wrote sonatas.


The renown Boccherini enjoyed in his prime is attested to by the remarks of the usually cautious Charles Burney, famed eighteenth-century historian, who rated him “among the greatest masters who have ever written for the violin or violoncello,” placing him second only to Haydn. The taste for Boccherini’s elegant, galant style waned, however, and he died in Madrid in poverty. The latter half of the twentieth century has witnessed a periodic resurgence of interest in his music: Gérard’s thematic catalog was published in 1969, a complete edition was begun in the 1970s, and a manuscript containing eighteen cello sonatas—three hitherto unknown—was discovered in 1982; yet much of his music awaits rediscovery.


The cello sonatas present an interesting set of problems. Was the “solo” part once intended for violin? The probable first edition appeared in that form; most evidence, however, points to the solo part having been written for cello. Was the accompanying part written for cello or bass? Furthermore, since the part is unfigured, should it really be realized at the keyboard? Many such realizations have been made and performances usually include keyboard.


The present Sonata in A major, one of the best known, is called No. 6 because it appeared last in a group of six Boccherini sonatas published in the 1770s in both violin and cello versions. The same grouping of six was retained 100 years later when Alfredo Piatti reedited the sonatas in a cello and piano version for the publisher Ricordi, and in subsequent editions. A second version of the second movement remained unknown as did most of the other cello sonatas. A third movement, Affettuoso, also exists, but is frequently omitted in performance. Additional confusion besets the order of the movements. Most of the manuscripts and printed editions follow the order Adagio, Allegro moderato, Affettuoso, but the manuscript that Gérard used for his thematic catalog of Boccherini’s works reverses the order of the first two movements.


The songful, highly ornamented Adagio outlines the simplest of binary forms in which the first half moves from the tonic key to the dominant and the second returns to the tonic. It is based on one theme, which receives a slight development at the beginning of the second half, but which—in a kind of elegant asymmetry—does not return at the close. The Allegro moderato again takes up binary form, with more suggestion of early sonata form, but demonstrating Boccherini’s characteristic structural flexibility. Such freedom is shown in the “recapitulation,” which contains no return to the first theme (that beginning after the introductory four bars), but rather to subsequent “exposition” material. Interestingly enough the little-known second version of this movement does contain a return of the first theme in the “recapitulation,” adding a certain formal stability but forfeiting some of the charming episodic ideas.

By Jane Vial Jaffe


P. Casals (1876-1973): Song of the Birds for four cellos

Pablo Casals was one of the most important musicians of the 20th century, as widely known during his long lifetime for his unrivaled musicianship as for his outspoken political convictions. Casals’ Song of the Birds uses as its basis a Catalan Christmas song that Casals arranged after leaving Spain in 1939 to protest the accession of Francisco Franco’s regime. The song itself tells of four birds – an eagle, lark, finch, and sparrow – coming to serenade the infant Jesus in the manger; Casals often performed it as an encore at his concerts.


Of it, Casals said that he hoped that “these sounds may be like a gentle echo of the nostalgia we all feel for Catalonia. These sentiments must make us all work together…with the hope for a tomorrow of peace, when Catalonia will again be Catalonia.”

By Jonathan Blumhofer


H. Villa-Lobos (1887-1959): Bachianas Brasileiras No.1

Heitor Villa-Lobos was and remains Brazil’s foremost classical composer. His father, an amateur musician, taught him to play the cello and clarinet, and he taught himself to play the guitar. After his father’s death, in 1899, Villa- Lobos began making a living playing guitar and cello in cafés and movie houses. As a composer, he was also mostly self-taught. Between 1905 and 1912 he made numerous expeditions into Brazil’s hinterland to study the music and folklore of the indigenous populations, whose music eventually became the inspiration for much of his own. In this regard, his career mirrored that of European contemporaries Béla Bartók, Zoltan Kodály, and Ralph Vaughan Williams, all of whom studied and incorporated the music of their native countries. In 1918, on a South American tour, pianist Artur Rubinstein “discovered” Villa-Lobos (who was already by then well-known in his native Brazil) and encouraged him to visit Europe “to show his accomplishments.”

The European trip finally took place in 1923. Villa-Lobos stayed in Paris until 1930 when he returned to Brazil to take charge of music education in the schools. In 1935, he began traveling continuously and extensively in Europe and the U.S. He composed a vast number of works, in all genres.


Villa-Lobos composed the nine Bachianas Brasileiras between 1930 and 1945, in “homage to the great genius of Johann Sebastian Bach ... [whom I] consider a kind of universal folkloric source, rich and profound ... [a source] linking all peoples.” But while the Bachianas contain suggestions of Bach’s style and form, the music is unmistakably Villa-Lobos’ own and relies heavily on Brazilian folk melody and rhythm.


Villa-Lobos began Bachianas Brasileiras No. 1, for eight cellos, in 1930. He dedicated the work to the great cellist and Bach interpreter, Pablo Casals. The first of the three movements, Embolada, takes its name from a poetic-musical form with stanza-and- refrain structure, declamatory melody, and fast tempo. The title of the prelude, Modinha, refers to a sentimental love song; the closing fugue is simply called Conversa — “chat.”

By Joseph & Elizabeth Kahn


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