Aaaand we’re back! Sorry for disappearing (again)… Here’s a brand-new SUGGESTED LISTENING for the CLASSICAL MUSIC SKEPTIC to get things back on track: the third movement from Zoltán Kodály’s Sonata in B minor for solo cello, Op. 8, performed below by Sebastian Bäverstam (US).
About the Composer:
Zoltán Kodály* (1882-1967) was about as Hungarian as a person could possibly be. Born in central Hungary, trained at the Budapest Academy of Music, and recipient of degrees in Hungarian literature, composition, music education, and, in 1906, a PhD for his “thorough structural analysis of Hungarian folksong” (AllMusic), Kodály was a man of many talents — a renowned composer as well as an ethnomusicologist, pedagogue, and hero of Hungarian culture. While working on his PhD dissertation, Kodály frequently headed out into the Hungarian countryside, visiting remote villages to study and collect folk songs. (Here’s a really cool example of a field recording, a Hungarian folk song recorded on a wax cylinder by Kodály’s friend and colleague Béla Bartók.) In an era when Hungary was grappling for its own identity independent of the Empire to which it belonged, following an 1848 revolution and now on the precipice of a Great War fraught with nationalistic identity crises, Kodály’s passionate promotion of music that was wholly and uniquely Hungarian was vital in the development of a national culture of which Hungary was proud.
About the Piece:
Written in 1915 — one year after the outbreak of World War I, in which over 4 million of the 9 million soldiers drafted by the Austro-Hungarian Empire were Hungarian, and which ultimately brought about Hungarian independence — Kodály’s Sonata in B minor, Op. 8 is as culturally poignant as it is musically significant. Kodály was deemed unfit to fight in the war, so he served instead as a volunteer defending Budapest’s monuments and historical sites, all the while continuing his studies of Hungarian folk music. Due to the war, the sonata would not be performed until 1918, when it was premiered in Budapest and quickly became one of the most important works for solo cello since Bach’s suites composed two centuries earlier. By Kodály’s own prediction, “In twenty-five years no cellist will be accepted who has not played it.” This final movement of the sonata’s three, marked allegro molto vivace (“very fast and lively”) is an all-out folk-song romp. Kodály transforms the cello into a fiddle, agile and energetic and resonant, transplanted from the Hungarian countryside to the concert hall. The above video is by no means the seminal recording — for that, check out this recording by János Starker, whose interpretation of the piece Kodály himself approved of — but what I love about Sebastian Bäverstam’s performance, besides his obvious technical skill, is how casual he makes it seem, just a guy in a T-shirt playing the hell out of one of the most objectively awesome pieces in the cello repertoire.
If you liked this movement from Sonata in B minor, you might also enjoy…
- Zoltán Kodály: “Maestoso — Presto” from Duo for Violin and Cello, Op. 7
- Béla Bartók: “Finale: Allegro vivace” from String Quartet No. 5
- György Ligeti: “Capriccio” from Sonata for Solo Cello