Cello Sonata (1948) by Elliott Carter
for cello and piano

When I was asked in 1947 to write a work for the American cellist Bernard Greenhouse, I immediately began to consider the relation of the cello and piano, and came to the conclusion that since there were such great differences in expression and sound between them, there was no point in concealing these as had usually been done in works of the sort. Rather it could be meaningful to make these very differences one of the points of the piece. So the opening Moderato presents the cello in its warm expressive character, playing a long melody in rather free style, while the piano percussively marks a regular clock-like ticking. This in interrupted in various ways, probably (I think) to situate it in a musical context that indicated that the extreme disassociation between the two is neither a matter of random or indifference but to be heard as having an intense, almost fateful character.

The Vivace, a breezy treatment of a type of pop music, verges on a parody of some Americanizing colleagues of the time. Actually it makes explicit the undercurrent of jazz technique suggested in the previous movement by the freely performed melody against a strict rhythm. The following Adagio is a long, expanding, recitativelike melody for the cello, all its phrases interrelated by metric modulations. The finale, Allegro, like the second movement based on pop rhythms, is a free rondo with numerous changes of speed that end up by returning to the beginning of the first movement with the roles of the cello and piano reversed.

As I have said, the idea of metrical modulation came to me while writing this piece, and its use becomes more elaborated from the second movement on. The first movement, written last after the concept had been quite thoroughly explored, presents one of the piece’s basic ideas: the contrast between psychological time (in the cello) and the chronometric time (in the piano), their combination producing musical or "virtual" time. The whole is one large motion in which all the parts are interrelated in speed and often in idea; even the breaks between movements are slurred over. That is: at the end of the second movement, the piano predicts the notes and speed of the cello’s opening of the third, while the cello’s conclusion of the third predicts in a similar way the piano’s opening of the fourth, and this movement concludes with a return to the beginning in a circular way like Joyce’s Finnegans Wake.

— E. C.    

[from program for March 2, 2009 concert]