Ligeti’s Cello Sonata: Making the Music Speak

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Legiti’s Sonata for Cello consists of two contrasting movements; the Dialogo, a short, expressive piece with obvious emotional undertones, and the Cappricio, a highly virtuosic, technical, and musically intense showcase. At first glance, the connections between the movements are superficial at best; in fact, the only obvious connection is a single echo of one of the main themes of the Dialogo about midway through the Cappricio and some related key areas. However, the goal of this paper is to explore a potential explanation for the seemingly disjoint nature of the two pieces.

Upon closer examination, each movement resembles a sonata, or at least a 20th-century disfiguration of a sonata, enough to justify analysis as such. However, analyzing the work void of extramusical meaning is problematic, as there are obvious intentions to emulate speech, especially in the first movement, and this emulation is integral to the essence of the piece. Both of these approaches must be taken together. My aim is to justify an interpretation of this piece as contrasting sister sonatas which paint an intelligible narrative through the use of dynamics, extended techniques, tempo, structure, and other musical devices.

The Dialogo, literally translated as Dialogue, is very obviously a musical attempt at capturing a conversation (or dialogue). This is accomplished by establishing two distinct voices which have unique themes that are in continuous interaction, and through the lack of time signature, with barlines only denoting phrases. Due to their respective register, the two voices evoke images of traditional male and female, and they will be referred to as such from here on out. The male voice is in minor modes almost exclusively and has a somber mood accordingly, along with lower dynamics throughout. The female voice, in contrast, is written in mostly major keys and has louder dynamics. The pizzicato glissando chords, and later, the pizzicato chords serve as introduction (in measure 1), interlude (measure 3) and closing (measure 16).

The movement is extremely short, however not without structure. Measures 2-9 are an exposition. This exposition introduces both themes and gives small glimpses of the ways they will interact. The voices seem to be having a reserved and timid conversation, each taking their turn and waiting for one another to finish. Then, in measure 10, the development of these themes begins. The two voices came from having a mostly mild ‘dialogue’ to an eruption of passion emotion. The dynamics are almost all an entire step above what they would have been in the exposition, and the themes are no longer clearly separate from one another. They bleed over into one another, overlaying, and each are embellished with more harmony, adding to the tension. While it can be interpreted as any sort of heated conversation, from a profession of love to an argument, it is undeniably a more emotionally charged conversation than before. This development is followed by a recapitulation in measure 15 of the first theme and a closing in measure 16. The closing has the male voice pondering over the conversation that just took place, loftily sitting on a low D. The form lends itself perfectly to the narrative thus far.

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The Cappricio is rigid, vigorous, swift, and intense. It is almost exclusively written in a rigid ⅜. The first theme (mm 1-13) heavily implies a key area of G. A transition leads into the second theme (mm. 41-56), which is built on D utilizes the whole-tone scale (mm. 41-44, low voice). Starting in m. 57, an embellished repetition of the second theme using tremolo seamlessly bridges into the middle section of the movement (m. 74). The following episode serves as a developmental area for motives from both themes, before introducing new thematic material in m. 96 (Example 3.11). This new material is related to the second theme with its similar use of an ostinato pattern. It gradually builds toward the climax of the Capriccio in m. 126. As the music hangs suspended in the air, the LV from the Dialogo reappears in a flashback of how everything began. The statement is interrupted by a forceful aftershock of the preceding events. The fast tempo resumes with a powerful return of Theme 1, again built around G, followed by a transitional episode featuring [026] motives derived from the first theme.

Unlike the first time, the second theme is stated only once (also based on G). Another seamless transition leads into a shortened development section that substitutes the new thematic material from the earlier episode with a long, diminishing melodic gesture before the music comes to a complete and rather anti-climactic stop in mm. 247-48 (Example 3.14) The Dialogo, however, does not reappear. Instead, there is one final, forceful outburst combining elements from both main themes that eventually resolves into a G major triad. An in-depth look at the melodic and harmonic events in the Capriccio clearly suggests the presence of a sonata-form structure. A number of elements support such an analysis. The opening section of the movement (mm. 1-73) features two contrasting themes, separated by a transitional episode. The themes have a I-V key relationship, common in sonata form.

There is a “development” section (mm. 74-142) which elaborates on both main themes. The thematic material of the opening returns in m. 143, with themes 1 and 2 now in the same key area of G, forming a “recapitulation” (mm. 143-205). (mm. 206-248) acts as a development of sorts including a diminishing ostinato pattern, concluding the “recapitulation” section. In addition, the movement closes with a section that acts very much like a coda (mm. 249-265), using motivic elements from both themes 1 and 2. In summary, the harmonic relationship between the two main themes, and the existence of exposition, development, and recapitulation areas, along with a clearly defined coda overwhelmingly support the presence of a sonata form structure in the Capriccio. While it is not traditional in any sense, it still resembles the structure unmistakably closely, enough to warrant analysis as such. Ligeti successfully modified the formal structure, infusing it with the modern atmosphere of new sonorities and folk-influenced rhythmic elements. The main themes are positioned in a I-V harmonic configuration.

The second movement can be argued to, in contrast to the dialogue of the first movement, represent a monologue of the male voice. A number of musical and historical features support this conclusion. The return of the male theme from the Diologo in measure 139, the (murkily) mirrored sonata form, the obviously soloistic nature, the trailing off of the male voice at the end of the first movement, and smooth dynamic changes (including different techniques, diminuendos, and tempi) all seem to at the very least imply a musical equivalent to an impassioned monologue. The male voice, which obviously conceded in a gentle somber mood at the end of the first movement is back with a great amount to say about the dialogue that has just taken place.

The echo of the male theme from the Dialogo brings the listener back as the voice reflects on the conversation it had, then erupts into a finale that is surprisingly anticlimactic, perhaps a musical equivalent to a ‘rising out’ of the voices inner monologue. The first movement – Dialogo – was written in 1948 while Ligeti was a student at the Liszt Academy in Budapest. It was intended as a short piece and written with a young female cellist in mind towards whom the composer had strong, though unshared feelings. It was not until 1953 that Ligeti completed the work as we know it today by composing a much more demanding and technically challenging fast movement to complement the Adagio from 1948.

Ligeti’s Cello Sonata is not a sonata, but rather two sonatas that flow into one another. The interpretation of an intelligible narrative is supported by historical, thematic, and structural ties within the movements. Beginning with a dialogue between two voices, leading to one voice mulling over the dialogue that was just had seems like a stretch at first, but upon closer analysis begs to be noticed. In this composition, Ligeti forces the performer to accomplish what every soloist strives for; making their instrument speak.

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