Ponce's Cello Sonata
Sonata for Cello and Piano (1922)
I. Allegro selvaggio
II. Allegro: alla maniera d'uno studio
III. Arietta: andantino affetuoso
IV. Allegro burlesco
Manuel M. Ponce (1882-1948)
The Sonata for Cello and Piano by Ponce pays homage to the four-movement Classical Sonata structure found in the symphonies and string quartets of Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791), and in the symphonies, piano trios, string quartets, and piano sonatas of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). Three noteworthy examples of the four-movement cello sonata in the Romantic Period are the two sonatas for cello and piano by Johannes Brahms (1833-1897), and the Sonata for Cello and Piano by Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849). The Sonata for Cello and Piano by Ponce is in the same key (g minor) as the Sonata for Cello and Piano by Chopin.
The model for the four-movement Classical Sonata structure is a fast first movement, a slow second movement, a dance-like third movement in the form of a minuet and trio, and a fast final movement (finale). The Sonata for Cello and Piano by Ponce, like the Sonata for Cello and Piano by Chopin, places the minuet and trio movement as the second movement, and the slow movement as the third movement. This switching of the middle movements can also be seen in the works of Beethoven, in works like the Ninth Symphony and the Hammerklavier Sonata, where the minuet and trio movement is actually a scherzo (joke) and trio movement, meaning faster in tempo and lighter in character than a minuet and trio but having the same formal structure.
The opening theme of the Sonata for Cello and Piano by Ponce may have been conceived during Ponce’s stay in Cuba in the second decade of the twentieth century, during the Mexican Revolution. The piano begins with a repetitive five-note rhythm, called a “cinquillo cubano,” while the cello quickly responds with the opening melody to start the work. The performers then reverse roles, the theme being played in the piano, against the “cinquillo cubano” played in the cello. After a customary bridge, the cello plays the lyrical, slow second theme of the exposition. The exposition is repeated, as is often the case in sonata form movements. The term “selvaggio” marked at the beginning of the movement calls for the players to perform the opening theme in a wild, savage, primitive manner.
The second movement, a scherzo and trio, is original in that it is written as an etude (technical study) for both instruments. Ponce marked “alla maniera d’uno studio” (like an etude) at the beginning of the movement. The middle section of the movement, the trio section, is calm by comparison, marked “Tranquillo” (tranquil, peaceful), and is followed by a return (Da Capo) to the opening of the movement to bring it to a close.
The third movement is marked “Arietta,” a term referring to the more elaborate “aria” form found in Baroque and Classical opera. The cello plays the role of a singer in this movement, without words in this case, highlighting the lyrical potential of the instrument. The movement unfolds much like an intermezzo; it functions as a reprieve from the opening two movements.
The finale is marked “Allegro burlesco,” the word burlesque denoting a lighter mood or character. As with many of Ponce’s themes, the opening theme played by the cello (following two abrupt octaves with fifths in the piano) conveys the dance-like character of a burlesque, and clearly demarcated dotted rhythms. Ponce introduces a fugue halfway through the movement, a procedure employed by earlier composers like Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Brahms, in their finale movements. The movement is brought to a close by the return of the opening burlesque theme, again played by the cello.
Manuel M. Ponce. Música de Cámara: Sonata violoncello y piano, ed.(Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 2005), 5-6.
Program notes by Dr. John Noel