Thursday, May 29, 2014

Grieg - Cello Sonata In A Minor, Opus 36

Edvard Grieg was by all accounts a bad student. He had no interest in academia, quit school when he was 15 and never went back.  Luckily for him, his musical talent was noticed by the great Norwegian violin virtuoso Ole Bull, who convinced Grieg's parents to allow him to study at  the Leipzig Conservatory.  True to his nature, he didn't much care for his teachers or the conservative curriculum, but he was exposed to music of the masters and was determined to make his way as a professional musician.

In 1860 Grieg suffered from tuberculosis and other lung ailments that left him with only one functioning lung. For the rest of his life he was beset with respiratory infections plus he had a spinal deformity. He eventually developed heart disease later in life. He finished his studies in Leipzig in 1862 and began to give piano recitals.

Grieg composed his only Cello Sonata in 1882 after an extended period when illness and his conducting duties prevented him from composing. He dedicated the work to his brother John, a gifted amateur cellist, perhaps as a peace offering for the brothers were not on good terms. The premiere of the work was given by a different cellist and Grieg at the piano in 1883.

The Cello Sonata is in 3 movements:
I. Allegro agitato - One of the few pieces Grieg wrote in sonata form, this movement begins with a highly agitated theme that literally wallows in romantic emotion. The theme quickens its pace until a serene second theme begins, which slowly unwinds until it reaches a mild climax, after which other material leads to the development section. The second theme goes through key changes and flirts with the passion of the first theme until the first theme reappears for a short reprise which is followed by a brief cadenza for the cello. The recapitulation begins with the first theme and quickly segues into the second theme. A short coda brings the first theme back at a quicker pace until the final chords signal the end of the movement.

II. Andante molto tranquillo - A lyrical theme begins the movement and slowly winds its way to a more agitated middle section. The lyrical theme returns, builds to a climax, and then recedes back to calmness. The end of the movement has the cello playing high in its register, and finally playing a very soft arpeggiated pizzicato chord.

III. Allegro molto e marcato - A short introduction for solo cello begins the movement. The piano interrupts with a spirited accompaniment and the cello joins it in a rustic Norwegian dance. The dance is interrupted by episodes that range from passionate to lyrical, and each time the dance appears, Grieg develops it in some way. The movement continues in this fashion until the last utterance of the dance brings it full circle. A short coda increases the tempo and passion until the cello soars into the top of its register with a passionate, long held note while the piano plays scales that lead to the final chords.

Grieg is more well known for his short, lyrical pieces for piano, the Piano Concerto in A minor and the Peer Gynt music, but his handful of chamber music pieces are some of the most passionate and dramatic music he ever wrote.


  1. Thanks for this wonderful information!! You know about Alisa Weilerstein? She is an American cellist and one of best cello player in these days. I am a big fan of her.

  2. I am listening to this work constantly now, in the recording by cellist Francoise Groben. Her photo is on the album cover but the pianist's photo belongs there too, since the piano's role is even bigger than the cello's! This work has so many echoes of (or similarities to) Grieg's piano concerto, especially in the coda of the 1st movement, which literally reprises the well-known opening of the A minor concerto.