I wish I had come across Egon Wellesz music years ago. He writes a totally unique blend of modernism and ancient music. His contemporary and fellow countryman Arnold Schoenberg overshadowed Wellesz’s fame and his music still remains quite buried in the musical canon of this great era of music. Wellesz was a very prolific composer with a catalogue including 9 symphonies, 9 string quartets, operas, ballets, and solo pieces for nearly every instrument. These solo pieces include 2 fantastic works for solo cello. His opus 39 titled Suite for Solo Cello, and opus 31 Sonata for Violoncello Solo are both excellent additions to the repertoire and deserve a great deal more attention.
Written almost exactly 100 years ago, Sonata for Violoncello Solo feels somehow both antique and current at the same time. Part of this, no doubt, comes from Wellesz’s love of Renaissance music. It makes several appearances throughout the piece and serves to anchor the music in a clearly tonal territory.
The opening of the piece exposes a strong whole-tone melody on the C string which acts as a recurring theme throughout the piece. If you can play this opening passage in higher positions on lower strings and reserve this colour for everytime this theme happens, it provides a wonderful timbral layer of cohesion to the piece.
The second theme that comes into play is the first appearance of what I hear as being ‘Renaissance,’ influenced. Wellesz writes this double stop theme in G minor over a sort of tolling open C and G string left hand pizz. This happens again later in the piece and both times it sounds very much like the music has come to rest in a key without much tension.
While the sonata is written as one, non-stop piece of music, it clearly has some sections that function like movements to a larger whole. When we reach the 5/4 section marked Allegretto Grazioso, Wellesz again resorts to this very cool Renaissance style of composition. This section is clearly the composer’s rendition of a courtly dance. It's fun to play, and with a bit of practise you can get it so that it really dances.
As the piece progresses we encounter previously heard material in snippets and new material woven through this. About halfway through the sonata we reach the section marked Allegro Moderato where again, Wellesz returns to the whole-tone scale to write his melodies. This is the first and only time during the piece that we get ‘unadulterated’ whole-tone material but it doesn’t last long. This section is fast and does take some practise to play intune but it is composed wonderfully for the instrument.
Finally we reach a sort of extended coda where the composer writes gradually more and more diatonic lines making his way to eventually end in C major. The writing throughout this section is quite beautiful and easy to play. The challenge is being able to maintain your stamina throughout the entirety of the piece, so that when you get to this final section you can play it with the strength that it needs.
Egon Wellesz’s Sonata for Violoncello Solo is one of those rare wonderful pieces that can challenge intermediate players as well as professionals. It is a piece that I will revisit many times in the years to come. The piece is totally suitable for a level 7 or level 8 student. It doesn’t have extended techniques but it does require some slow methodical practise in certain sections to be able to play them intune and musically. The total running time is around 13 minutes. This month I have a challenge for you! I want to hear your recordings! Record the above passages and send them to my email address, let me know what you think of the piece and how you practised the parts.