Notes by Dr. Natalie Wren
Arthur Honegger (1892 – 1955): Sonatine for Violin and Cello, H. 80 (1932)
Arthur Honegger was born in Le Havre to Swiss parents, but he spent much of his adult life in Paris, where he was celebrated as one of his generation’s greatest composers. Music history students will have learned that he was a member of Les Six, a term coined by writer Henri Collet in 1920 to describe a collective of six young, avant-garde composers who had repudiated the perceived excesses of German Romanticism and French Impressionism for a more whimsical and simplistic aesthetic. (The other composers in this musical “club,” were Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc, George Auric, Germaine Tailleferre, and Louis Durey.) Unlike his contemporaries, though, Honegger still upheld much of the Germanic tradition in form and harmony.
“My model is [J.S.] Bach…I do not seek, as do certain anti-Impressionists, the return to harmonic simplicity. I find, on the contrary, that we should use the harmonic materials created by the school which preceded us, but in a different way—as the base of lines and rhythms.”
You will hear in Honegger’s Sonatine for Violin and Cello the composer’s remarkably complex contrapuntal writing. The influence of Bach is evident, not only in the two-part invention which interrupts the second movement, but also in the general contrast of contrapuntal textures with more chorale-like sections.
Honegger suffered from depression throughout his life, and often this could be heard in his gravely serious music. After his 1931 tragic oratorio Cris du monde left him in a deep depression, it took Honegger eighteen months to compose another piece. His Sonatine for Violin and Cello, however, was written in September 1932 just a month after the birth of his daughter, and is a much lighter affair. It is as if the young father had rediscovered a taste for life and creative inspiration, for his Sonatine is imbued with a contrapuntal complexity and rich four-part harmonies not typically seen in a two-instrument work.
This 15-minute duo follows the prescribed fast-slow-fast three movement model. The first movement, Allegro, begins and ends with a foreboding and meandering unison line between the violin and cello, quickly diverging into contrasting rhapsodic motives. The Andante movement also follows a structural arch, with the outer sections being likened to a cradle song for its tenderness. The spritely third movement, again marked Allegro, is a playful game between the two instruments, beginning with a call-and-response section that then devolves into competitive feats of virtuosity, before they mischievously close the piece together.
Zoltán Kodály (1882 – 1967) Duo for Violin and Cello, Opus 7 (1914)
I. Allegro serioso, non troppo
III. Maestoso e largamente, ma non troppo lento—Presto
“If I were to name the composer whose works are the most perfect embodiment of the Hungarian spirit, I would answer Kodály. […] all Kodály’s composing activity is rooted only in Hungarian soil, but the deep inner reason is his unshakable faith and trust in the constructive power and future of his people.” — Béla Bartók
Hungarian composer, educator, and ethnomusicologist Zoltán Kodály was a towering force in his country, who helped to galvanize Hungary’s musical culture. Over the course of ten years, Kodály and fellow composer (and life-long friend) Béla Bartók pioneered the collection and cataloguing of authentic Hungarian folk music by traveling to remote villages and convincing skeptical locals to sing into funnels designed to collect sound on immense wax cylinders. With a shared interest in a national Hungarian identity, their work was instrumental in bringing rarely heard ethnic music to the Western concert stage.
Kodály, who essentially taught himself to play violin, viola, cello, and piano, received excellent formal training in Paris, where he was greatly influenced by the music of Claude Debussy. Add to this combined love of folk music and French Impressionism a handful of advanced degrees in modern languages and a Ph.D in philosophy and linguistics, and you have an incredibly unique voice in the history of music.
Kodály wrote Duo for Violin and Cello in 1914 at the onset of World War I; it has since endured as one of the finest works in the genre. In his Duo, Kodály crafts a perfect synthesis of the asymmetrical elements of folk music and the Classical and Romantic traditions of Western music. Folk elements like the use of pentatonic and modal scales, elaborate ornamentation, and polyrhythms abound throughout the three movements. In the Allegro, Kodály eschews the traditional lyricism of the Western masters; he allows the two instruments to speak, rather than sing, to each other through short motifs that become increasingly competitive by the end of the movement. The prayerful Adagio begins with a gentle monologue in the cello that is then taken by the violin. Through increasingly agitated lines, the tension mounts before dying away to a shadow. The violin opens the third movement with a rhapsodic monody that harkens back to the original theme in the first movement, before breaking into a lively peasant dance with the cello, where they circle around each other faster and faster, ending with a rousing bang.