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by Gerard McBurney, a composer, broadcaster and teacher at the Royal Academy of Music, London
January 2001

Sergei Rachmaninov - Sergei Prokofiev - Dmitri Shostakovich
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Sergei Rachmaninov

Sonata for Piano and Cello in g minor, Opus 19

Born: 1 April 1873, Semyonova
Died: 28 March 1943, Beverly Hills, California

Composed: In the fall and early winter of 1901 for the cellist Anatoly Brandukov. Towards the end of the last movement, Rachmaninov wrote the date "November 20th". At the very end he wrote December 12th, showing that he revised the ending immediately after the first performance. Rachmaninov was 28 years old.

First performance: In Moscow, December 2nd 1901 by Anatoly Brandukov, with the composer at the piano.

Other works from immediately before: Piano Concerto No. 2, Op. 18; Suite No. 2 for two pianos, Op. 17.

Other works from immediately after: Spring, a cantata for bass, chorus, and orchestra, Op. 20; Twelve Songs for voice and piano, Op. 21.

The composer and his music: In the wake of the successful completion of his Second Piano Concerto, Rachmaninov spent the summer of 1901 on the family’s country estate in the Tambov region, several days’ travel to the south of Moscow.

To judge by his letters, it was only after he returned to Moscow in late September that he began to work on the sonata, the performance of which was already planned. By mid-November he was crying off social engagements, complaining that "my work’s going badly, and there’s not much time left. I’m depressed…" On November 30th however he sent a message to the Taneyev inviting him to a rehearsal at 11:30 that morning. By the following January 15th he was hard at work on the final proofs of the piece: "I’ve found almost no mistakes."

In later years Rachmaninov remembered his cello sonatas as one of a series of pieces through which, with the help of Dr. Nikolai Dahl, after a long period of depression and inability to create, he was born again as a composer: "I felt that Dr. Dahl’s treatment had strengthened my nervous system to a miraculous degree…The joy of creating lasted the next two years, and I wrote a number of large and small pieces, including the Sonata for Cello…"

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Sergei Prokofiev

Sonata for Cello and Piano in C major, Opus 119

Born: 23 April 1891, Sontsovka
Died: 5 March 1953, Moscow

Composed: In 1949 for Mstislav Rostropovich. Prokofiev was 58 years old.

First performances: Cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and pianist Sviatoslav Richter gave a private performance in the House of the Union of Composers, Moscow, on December 6, 1949. This was followed by the first public performance, by the same artists, in the Small Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, on March 1, 1950.

Other works from immediately before: Piano Sonata No. 9, Op. 103; Ivan the Terrible (film score); A Winter Bonfire, Op. 122 (music for children).

Other works from immediately after: Sinfonia Concertante for cello and orchestra, Op. 125; Symphony No. 7, Op. 131.

The composer and his music: Prokofiev is said to have placed an epigraph over the first page of the sonata, a quotation from Maxim Gorky: "Mankind—that has a proud sound."

By the time he wrote this music, Prokofiev was seriously ill and no longer able to play the piano. He spent most of his time confined to his apartment in the middle of Moscow or in his country house in the peaceful tree-filled village of Nikolina Gora, a hour’s drive from the city. It was in these two homes that he worked on the sonata.

Prokofiev was too weak to attend the first public performance of the piece in March 1950. Sviatoslav Richter commented later on Prokofiev’s appearance at that time: "It was hard to believe: a man who had always created such energy was now a hapless creature."

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Dmitri Shostakovich

Sonata for Cello and Piano in d minor, Opus 40

Born: 25 September 1906, St. Petersburg
Died: 9 August 1975, Moscow

Composed: Begun in mid-August 1934 in Moscow. On August 17th the composer noted that the first movement was nearly finished. The third movement was completed on September 13th, and the last movement on September 19th in Leningrad. The sonata was written for cellist Viktor Kubatsky, former principal cellist of the Bolshoi Theater, Moscow, and organizer of the Stradivarius Quartet. Shostakovich and Kubatsky toured as a duo, performing not only Shostakovich’s sonata but also the sonatas of Rachmaninov and Grieg. Shostakovich reportedly performed all the piano parts from memory. The composer was 27 years old.

First performance: In Leningrad, 25 December 1934, by Viktor Kubatsky and Shostakovich.

Other works from immediately before: Piano Concerto No. 1, Op. 35; Jazz Suite No. 1

Other works from immediately after: The Tale of the Priest and His Servant Balda (cartoon opera for children based on Pushkin); The Limpid Stream, Op. 39 (ballet); Sympony No. 4, Opus 43.

The composer and the music: In public interviews at this time Shostakovich spoke of his need to "struggle for a simple language" and he invoked Maxim Gorky’s phrase about a need for a "purity of language". At the same time, his private letters suggest a connection with emotional experiences at this time.

Although already married, in June the composer had fallen in love with a young translator, Elena Konstatinovskaya. He and his wife Nina took a long seaside holiday in the South during which time he wrote continually to Elena. Stopping in Moscow on their way home to Leningrad, in mid-August, Nina decided she had had enough and pushed for a separation. She continued on to Leningrad, leaving Shostakovich behind in Moscow. It was at that time he began the cello sonata.

Soon after the first performance of the cello sonata, Shostakovich asked his wife for a divorce. By later 1935, however, Nina was expecting their first child, Galina, and the couple were re-united.

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