Robert Schumann made use of the name Fantasiestücke four times. First came his famous piano cycle, later followed by pieces for piano for four hands, a trio for piano, violin and cello and, finally, three Fantasiestücke for clarinet and piano, in which the part of the clarinet could be replaced by the violin or cello, depending on the wishes of the performers.
Schumann used the word “Fantasie” meaning not “the fantastic” but rather “fantasy” so admired by the romantics, creating something new and brilliantly combining various elements. It is true that in 1849, when these three lyric pieces were written, Schumann had already drifted away from romanticism to the more comfortable Biedermeier style in the spirit of Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words. The proposal to replace the clarinet with the violin or cello indicates that the piece was meant, first and foremost, for amateur musicians.
The Fantasiestücke have no programme titles, and Schumann merely indicated the tempo and the character: “Tenderly and expressively”, “Lively and slowly” and “With passion, con fuoco”.
Johannes Brahms’ Cello and Piano Sonata No 2 was written at the request of cellist Robert Hausmann. The composer worked on his new opus in the summer of 1886 in the small Swiss town of Thun. In the autumn he “reaped the harvest” – in Vienna he performed what he had written over the course of the summer. On 24 November the sonata was performed (using the actual manuscript) at the Kleine Saal of Vienna’s Musikverein. The cello part was performed by Hausmann and the piano by the composer.
The first movement of the sonata amazes us with its wise economy, the secret of which Brahms had discovered later in life. It is based on a motif of two sounds from which, as if from a seed, both themes – the principal and the secondary – sprout forth. The second movement is possibly the highly enigmatic Adagio affettuoso that Brahms had dropped from his First Cello Sonata twenty years earlier and now revived from inexistence. At the start of the final Allegro molto Brahms unexpectedly moves his attention to the pianist, giving the piano an almost orchestral structure. The initial theme of the finale is closely linked to the principal theme of the last movement of Brahms’ First Symphony, only here the music is more modest in terms of scale and is not devoid of humorous streaks.
On 13 February 1900 tragedy struck the Sibelius family: the one-and-a-half-year-old Kristi died from typhoid fever. Almost immediately after his daughter’s death, Sibelius wrote his Fantasia for Cello and Piano, later named Malinconia. In everyday understanding “melancholy” is nothing more than a “sad mood”; but the name of Sibelius’ opus refers to the original meaning of the word: “depression”. Malinconia was composed very quickly, in one fell swoop: in it Sibelius poured out his pain, grief, anger and despair.
The violin was the most important instrument for Sibelius; his brother played the cello and his sister the piano. And yet the cello remained an important instrument for him. Even at school Sibelius had wanted to master the cello in order to play it in an orchestra; the plan never came to fruition, mainly because the young musician did not have an instrument of his own. It was Sibelius who wrote the first piece for solo cello in the history of Finnish music.
Sibelius composed the piece based on specific performers – Georg and Sigrid Schnéevoigt. This married couple were close friends with the Sibelius family. Georg was the first cellist with the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra while Sigrid was an acclaimed pianist. Sibelius strove to make both parts equally virtuoso in nature. The piano part even turned out to be somewhat “supersaturated” in technically complex cadenzas, bringing the genre of the piece close to a toccata.
Malinconia opens with a slow (Adagio pesante) and literally constrained monologue of the cello, abundant in chromaticisms; the monologue begins sotto voce, tortuously ascending from a low register to a high one. The ascent leads to a whoop of despair, the voice of the cello stops and is replaced by the stormy figurations of the piano, resembling a flood of tears. In the next passage of the piece one can hear its principal leitmotif, songful but constrained in a narrow range. Sibelius on numerous occasions gives this theme to the cello and then to the piano and even builds a brief fugato on its variation.
The work was premiered on 12 March 1900 in Helsinki.
In the history of music the appearance of works for a solo instrument is almost always connected with the collaboration of the composer and a vivid virtuoso performer. For the cello repertoire of the latter half of the 20th century Mstislav Rostropovich was one such character. In 1949 the twenty-two-year-old musician drew the attention of Sergei Prokofiev, who had heard his performance of a Cello sonata by Nikolai Myaskovsky. Soon, working directly with Rostropovich, Prokofiev composed a sonata of his own. External events could not but affect the moods that reign in the music of the sonata (it was the first work composed by Prokofiev after 1948 when most of his opuses had been subjected to criticism and basically forbidden); the typical Prokofievian lyricism and scherzo qualities were literally suppressed, while the slow and restrained first movement takes on the role of the core of the work, comparable with the other two movements together in terms of scale. Simplifying the language of the music did not prevent Prokofiev from creating music that was incredibly fresh and innovative; his works for cello (for Rostropovich he was also to compose the Symphony-Concerto) were some of the greatest opuses he ever composed.