Movement 1: Allegro maestoso ma appassionato
Movement 2: Adagio
Movement 3: Allegro molto vivace
Kodály had been declared unfit for military service in World War I, and instead, while continuing his studies in Hungarian folk music and composing, worked with a volunteer group that was devoted to defending the principal monuments in Budapest. It is important to remember that the Sonata was a wartime work, which gives a tragic edge to the sense of prophetic utterance, especially in the first two movements. It was because of the war that it had to wait three years for its premiere. It is dedicated to the cellist Jeno Kerpely, of the Waldbauer-Kerpely Quartet, an ensemble that championed contemporary Hungarian chamber music and gave the first performances of Kodály’s two quartets and the first two quartets of Bartók. Kerpely premiered the Sonata in Budapest on 7 May 1918. There are three large-scale movements, and Kodály boldly extends his tonal palette by the use of scordatura—retuning the instrument’s strings to make possible a different range of harmonies and tone-colour. The C string is tuned down to B, the G string to F sharp, and while the music is notated as normal, these ‘mistunings’ mean that the sound produced often diverges from the printed notes. They also appear to help Kodály to produce passages of intense polyphony where each string seems to have its own colour, and indeed there are passages in the work where the single cello sounds like a whole orchestra, or a range of different instruments.
The sonata begins with a majestic, passionate Allegro maestoso ma appassionato, full of bold, authoritative gestures and truculent exclamations. The impression of a highly emotional monologue is unmistakable. While the opening subject makes much use of massive triple- and quadruple-stopped chords, a pleading, highly emotional second theme is more melodically based and taps deep into a contrasting lyrical vein. Both themes span the entire range of the instrument, and both in their different ways are redolent of sublimated Hungarian folk music. The development climaxes in a passage of furious trills at the top of the cello’s register, while the movement ends with a melancholic coda based on the second theme.
The central Adagio, marked con grand’ espressione, begins with a dark, meandering, low-lying melodic line that flowers into a highly decorated melody with the character of a desolate folksong, accompanied by occasional resonant pizzicati. These elements alternate and then make way for a much more aggressive central section, Con moto, which seems like a wild, stamping dance. When the music of the opening section returns it is floridly elaborated and much transformed, with more than a hint of gypsy-style virtuosity, the rapid figurations suggesting a cimbalom. The coda is bleak and haunting, the passion spent, the final downward glissando a distant wail of despair.
But in the finale, Allegro molto vivace, we are plunged into a kind of folk-dance medley, though of the most sublimely transfigured kind. The cello becomes at one moment a kind of bagpipe, simultaneously drone and chanter, at another a zither or even a folk clarinet. Despite the virtuoso nature of the first two movements this tumultuous finale surpasses them in sheer bravura, with brilliant use of pizzicati, double stops, rapid repeated notes and tremendous arpeggio passages. The many themes, each it seems conceived from the inside of the instrument, refer to several different kinds of Hungarian folk music. An extended, eerie build-up, in spectral and eventually shrieking sul ponticello tremolandi, leads back to the movement’s opening theme and a magnificent review of most of its material even more staggering in its demands on the player’s technique. The defiant final bars span a whole five octaves, from the highest to the lowest B. Had he written nothing else apart from this magnificent Sonata, Kodály would still deserve to be accounted one of the greatest musical geniuses that Hungary has ever produced.
from notes by Calum MacDonald © 2010