Student Resources – Get to know your cello repertoire

Featured piece : Debussy Cello Sonata . Listen and comment below. When commenting try to answer what mood is the composer trying to illustrate in each of the movements, what imagery come to mind and what kind of atmosphere is being created.

Before you get started watch a short video about Impressionism period in music

Debussy sonata for cello and piano performed by Lynn Harrell and Victor Asunsion piano

13 thoughts on “Student Resources – Get to know your cello repertoire”

  1. Thank you for the invite. This is my first time really looking at this piece and it is nice to have everyone’s insights. I had one additional observation to the first movement, which, as said, moves through major, minor, modes and moods. It ends on a brief mood lift by raising the third (f# on piano) thus changing the final chord from d minor to D major (a Picardy Third). (Vincent did mention the D.) The use of that brief glimmer of hope, to me, was an interesting (maybe comical or teasing) transition to the sudden darkly comedic nervousness of the second movement, and poor Pierrot.
    Have not yet watched the Zander yet. Will do.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Great observation Lynn. I have not noticed that before but indeed you are correct. Towards the end of the first movement there is lot of alteration between major and minor as if Debussy wasn’t sure which mood to pick but he ends the movement on the major chord and so we get the “glimmer of hope” as you nicely put it. Thank you for that interesting observation !


  2. Mvmt 1: To me, the first movement alternates between three different moods. The first is grand, as if announcing the entrance of royalty. Debussy utilizes open voicings and the large range of piano to set this atmosphere. The second is a calm, pensive atmosphere, almost as if floating on a lake. In this section Debussy often alternates between minor and major chords (I think) and the piano plays a steady “one chord per two beats” rhythm. The third atmosphere is anxious, characterized by ostinatos and dissonance between the piano and the cello. Debussy also uses the higher octaves of the piano to add to the nervous feeling. We then return to mood 2 before ending with an almost comical staccato D on the piano.
    Mvmt 2: Movement 2 begins somewhere between nervousness and mischievousness. It contrasts the first movement with its use of staccato, pizzicato, and more dissonance. The cello melody also features chromaticism. The dynamics change much quicker (often suddenly) which contribute to the unpredictable tone of this movement. Debussy also adds some sul ponticello for shock effect :). This movement starts off with many chords in the upper octaves of the piano. In the second half of the movement, Debussy shifts to a warmer tone: lower chords, less chromaticism, less dissonance.

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    1. The entrance of royalty is very interesting observation. The Flamenco Dance ( which influences the opening of this mvt) is a street dance with very driving rhythms. The dancers with their erect postures and proud moves act in fact very royal when performing this dance. I really like your description of “floating on the lake atmosphere” in the second mood. This is the kind of imagination needed to play this passage well.
      “The second movement begins somewhere between nervousness and mischievousness” yes, and it has a subtitle “Pierrot angry with the moon” . Pierrot is a push-over character who is trying to play his guitar but it is not going very well. The nervousness you may have heard is the mocking laughter of the girl Columbine rejecting Pierrot. Great comments !
      Please watch the Zander video Masterclass on this piece which I posted under Alexia’s comment.


  3. Music categorized in the Impressionism movement gives listeners the freedom to interpret what they are hearing more through a personal perspective. So, to give a more personal interpretation of this piece, a little after the beginning of the first movement of this sonata by Claude Debussy, I felt a sense of urgency building through the cello’s bouncing bow and its repeating crescendos and decrescendos; the piano also followed along with the cello as the tempo sped up. Rather than
    continually going fast or playing with significant changes in volume, however, Debussy also incorporated calmer emotions into the piece by utilizing a rallentando and dropping the
    volume down to what sounds like pianissimo to conclude this movement and transition to the second one. The description of the first movement in the video was that it was “sustained and very resolute,” which agrees with the ideas I had while listening to it, and overall, to give a description that I believe would describe my general ideas while listening, it’s like someone who often keeps quiet finally speaking up about something, and it’s so important that they speak, that
    they do not hold anything back while talking.

    The use of pizzicato and sudden, quick bow strokes on the cello, as well as the piano’s abrupt articulation, significantly conveyed the “animated, light, and nervous” emotions as the video words it for the second movement of this piece. Tension built up frequently in this piece, even more so in this movement than the previous one, which I believe had more lightly introduced the entire mood of this piece, and this second movement, which was also the final movement, established that it was the general mood of this piece. To continue with the example about the person talking, this second movement was like if the talking person’s tone became even more insistent than before, and perhaps that person was even surprising themselves as they spoke.

    I think this was the first time I listened to this particular piece, so I found it interesting to experience the emotions throughout it, which, overall, were powerful. I also enjoyed watching the musicians performing this piece because I could see the strong emotions put into this performance, and this made the listening experience much more intriguing to me than if I were only listening to the audio.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “ it’s like someone who often keeps quiet finally speaking up about something”
      What a great way to describe the movement ! The movement indeed changes from very sweet tender and introverted to assertive , resolute exuberant and agitated.
      The second movement and third movement are to follow without a pause (attacca). The third movement Finale starts at 8:38 ( it was not indicated on the video which I think it was a mistake).
      “ the tension built up frequently in this movement “ .
      Yes , very much so ! there is a lot of mix of comical and sometimes even absurd elements with more serious character.
      I encourage you to listen to Mr Zander Masterclass on the first movement of this piece.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you for the informative response and for sharing the master class video! Both have helped me understand better how musicians generally interpret this piece.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ll give this a try. To me, the first movement starts off loud and in your face, and it reminds me of an argument. The music then quiets down and somewhat somber, almost like a friend you argued with has reacted by leaving, and now you’re depressed because of the separation and silence.
    The second movement is more anxious, like someone who is facing uncertainty, and it makes them very nervous. Perhaps the friend you argued with is staying away for an extended period of time, and you wonder if you’re going to see them again, if they’re OK right now, or is something irreparably wrong? In the alternative, perhaps you’re running away from something that makes you uncomfortable? Having the LA County Sheriff’s helicopter circle over my neighborhood a few times when I was listening to the second movement may have influenced this comment a bit.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Love your comments and the emotions you felt throughout the work. The beginning does sound argumentative and forcful. Debussy and many French composers of his time were influenced by Flamenco Spanish Dance and this is very evident when piano and then cello opens this movement. Rhythm and expressiveness of this dance can really be felt at the beginning and it is very much “in your face”.
      The melody that comes after the introduction sounds indeed very sad and to me with sweet tenderness at the same time. I like your story about the friend that left and the feelings that this evoked in the second movement. Thank you for your comments ! See the Zander Masterclass video on this piece I posted under Alexia’s comment.


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