october COMPOSER: dame ethel smyth
sonata in a minor for cello and piano, Op 5, 1887
Sonata in A minor is a sonorous treat for the ears. A piece that displayed Dame Ethel’s move from student to professional; she composed it a few years after studying at the Leipzig music conservatory. You can hear the influence of Brahms, a man she both met and admired while studying. Indeed her time in Germany provided her a musical community that she had not found growing up in England. This sonata is dedicated to one of these friends, famous cellist Julius Klengel. The combination of cello and piano never fails to provoke an emotional response. It is especially true in Sonata in A minor where they are so magnificently woven around each other by Smyth’s lyrical expertise.
Sonata in A minor for Cello and Piano is around twenty minutes long and has three movements. It differs from Smyth’s usual style by only having the three movements, however it still fits with the classic fast-slow-fast sonata form. The first movement Allegro moderato has a light playful theme with an undertone of melancholy about it, the second movement Adagio non tropp is slower, sadder and more reflective, the third movement Allegro vivace e grazioso takes all the melancholy and reflection of the first two movements and makes them dance.
It reminds me in an odd way of running. Running through a park, all green soft grass, and sun in the sky but that ache echoing through your body with every footfall, the pull of coaxing tired and lazy muscles into action. But it wants to run that body too, something in the brain, something in the heart finds the rush of the blood to the limbs exhilarating – it brings back the playful feelings of childhood.
As the run continues it induces an alternation between heart-lifting feeling of being among nature and the pounding pain of your feet, your knees and the stretch of your lungs. Finally you push through that wall and no longer feel any ache just the rush of endorphins, the thrill of the wind and sun on your face, the dance of your feet hitting the earth.
A campaigner from an early age, after Dame Ethel fell in love with classical she spent some years convincing her traditionally-minded father to let her go to the conservatory in Leipzig for further study. She finally won him over at 19 and went on to immerse herself in the music world she found in Germany. She claims to have discovered musical kindred spirits there and become embedded in the musical community, her education coming as much from the people she moved among as the conservatory itself.
However, in the years between Leipzig and the composition of this Sonata, Smyth went through some difficult times. She found herself embroiled in an emotional drama in her personal life and became outcast from her ‘musical kindred spirits’. The place that had nurtured that musical yearnings and probably for Smyth as a young woman, a place that represented a place where she could be herself had become a place of unease and tension. It is no surprise then to find this piece appear after such difficult years. The mournful but playful themes of Sonata in A minor display the complexity of finding what once was pleasurable now painful. A fact reflected in her personal life, again and again. But as with the majority of artists, from times of great emotional crisis come works of extreme ease and beauty.