Sonata for Solo Violoncello (1955) by George Crumb
for cello

The twenty-five year old George Crumb composed his first published work, the Sonata for Solo Violoncello, in Berlin in 1955 when he was there on a Fulbright Scholarship. Dr. Crumb has characterized it as a "student work," composed at a time when he had not yet quite arrived at his own style. Nevertheless, the piece demonstrates the composer’s ability to coax a great variety of sound from the instruments for which he writes. Additionally, it requires virtuosic skill, a recurring characteristic of Crumb’s music. Thus it opens a broad avenue for performers to express their individuality.

Crumb builds the structure of the piece by contrasts of plucked and bowed subjects, chordal and melodic textures, and carefully notated dynamics. The sonata is not in any particular key but instead, as Edith Borroff observes, it is "tonally free, projecting a series of pitch centers — not centripetal centers as in tonal [progressions], but centers of activity... The subject material is rhythmically characterized and clearly shaped, so that elements can be recognized in repetition, development and restatement, even in altered forms. [The structure is] dependent upon process but not on progression."

The sonata’s three movements are based on Baroque forms and thus exemplify the neoclassicism so popular in the twentieth century. The first is a free fantasia which opens with two subjects: guitar-like plucked chords followed by a bowed short note dropping to a long note. Crumb calls the latter a "Hungarian motif;" its rhythm was inspired by the work of Béla Bartók whose use of atonality and chromaticism also influenced the work. He adds, "The tritonal relationship [the dissonant interval of three whole tones] is there... the devil’s interval as they used to call it." Contrasts between these two opening ideas — each with its characteristic performance style, rhythm and texture — form the basis of the movement’s development. At the end the movement fades away with a couple of pizzicato chords similar to those that open the piece.

The second movement, a theme and variation form, opens with a delicate theme exploiting a lilting subject deployed across a form that repeats the first few measures before closing with a few more measures of contrasting material. This is followed by three variations the first two of which retain the AAB form of the theme. The second variation uses plucking pizzicatos throughout and the third a tremolo figure and a looser form. The movement ends with a coda briefly repeating the opening material of the theme before slowing and dying away.

The dramatic final movement is a free toccata opening slowly before embarking on a fast perpetual motion of ascending and descending arpeggiations of harmonically unrelated chords. The steady flow is interrupted about halfway through by more lilting rhythms before a return to the continuous motion that is the most characteristic aspect of this toccata. Skillful contrasts of loud and soft dynamics elucidate the structure.

All in all, this early piece by George Crumb validates his declaration "I am optimistic about the future of music." He could have been especially optimistic about the future of his own music.

— R. W. M.    

[from program for February 10, 2014 concert]