The Cello Sonata is one of Kurt Weill’s (1900-1950) earliest published works; it was probably completed before his 20th birthday. He began the work while still enrolled in the Berlin Hochschule, and continued working on it upon his return to his parents’ home in Leipzig and during his summer in Ludensheid. It was most likely premiered in Dessau in the early 1920s. The Sonata was not performed again until 1975 and was never published in the composer’s lifetime.
The music of the Sonata reflects the young Weill as he looks “both ways,” back at the German Romantic composers of the 19th century as well as forward to the French “Impressionists” and German Expressionists of the 20th century.
He shows the influence of the colorful vocabulary of French composers Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel, and the freer approach to tonality taken by Franz Schreker and Arnold Schoenberg.
Weill dispenses with a fundamental element of the tonal, or major/minor system, in the second and third movements of this work: namely, the key signature (which appears only in the first movement). The Andante espressivo features the plaintive cello set against challenging harmonic instigation from the piano. By employing an odd meter (7/8, one short beat shy of the more familiar 4/4) and by shaping the musical lines in long, fluid gestures, Weill creates a sense of restlessness and yearning in this movement.
The third movement is a rondo, with an angular and punchy first theme alternating with two differing episodes. We hear elements of the style that will eventually be the composer’s hallmark. For example, he adopts the trappings of a popular dance, the lilting waltz, in this movement. In Weill’s hands, however it becomes “wild” and a bit “grotesque,” just as his initial performance instructions indicated. Likewise, the alternating moody episodes, more lyrical in nature, recall Weill’s uncanny ability to pen a memorable tune.
Composer Dave Kopplin, who holds a Ph.D. from UCLA, is a writer and program editor for the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Hollywood Bowl. He is also a lecturer in music at Loyola Marymount University.