Ethel Smyth: Cello Sonata
Dame Ethel Smyth is one of the most important British composers that bridged the gap between the 19th and 20th centuries. She composed a number of orchestral works, chamber music, songs and six operas. Also a talented writer, Smyth also penned 9 books (in 10 volumes) which spanned both her life and the musical life in the Britain she lived in. Smyth is also remembered for her association with the Women Suffragettes between 1910-1912, where she wrote The March of the Women. At age 19, Smyth travelled to Leipzig where she studied at the conservatory, but she left after a year as “she wasn’t being taught properly.” She remained in the cultural hub of a city whilst privately studying composition with Heinrich Herzegenberg.
Smyth’s only Cello Sonata dates back to 1887, and was dedicated to the German cellist Julius Klengel. Unlike many of her contemporaries who strived to write technically demanding music for performers, Smyth took the approach to explore the range and tonal colours of the cello. Not necessarily the most challenging work, Smyth’s Cello Sonata is challenging in other ways, making it a profound work in his catalogue.
Set into three movements, the Cello Sonata is accompanied by a piano.
Movement I – Allegro moderato
The expansive opening movement shows off the range of the cello. With big sweeping movements across the instrument, the constant flow of music creates a big sound between just two instruments. Inspired by the likes of Johannes Brahms, this opening movement, laden with Romantic melodies, is a homage to his work. The cello and piano work together as they explore the tonal colours of the minor keys that Smyth moves them through. This movement is brooding all the way through, yet it never explodes or gets out of control. The duo come to a quiet end as the impressive first movement concludes.
Movement II – Adagio non troppo
The quietly sombre second movement is highly lyrical. The opening sombre mood is heard throughout the whole movement, with the main cello melodies often being pensive and reflective. There is lots of intensity sewn into the heart of this movement, with Smyth’s texture writing coming into the spotlight. The sheer intensity between the cello and piano carries this movement forward as the two entangle in a rich Romantic style. Small fluctuations in tempo keeps the music flowing until the last few bars as the tempo slows right down as the pair unite for the delicate final notes.
Movement III – Allegro vivace e grazioso
The tarantella-like finale movement is fast in tempo and fizzing with excitement. After this first theme is heard, Smyth cleverly takes the melody and transforms it into a flowing lyrical second theme. The two themes then come together to create a celebratory first climax between the cello and piano. The piano drives a lot of the tempo in this movement, with the two working as one musical machine to aptly present Smyth’s accessible melodies. Unlike the previous two movements, the finale finishes with a bang as the cello plays a whirling figure before uniting with the piano for the last phrase.
Ethel Smyth’s Cello Sonata is a rich and exploratory work that showcases the cello as a bold and melodic instrument. Smyth’s exploration of tonal colour is at the forefront of this sonata, with her impressive harmonic language shining through.
Ⓒ Alex Burns