Masterclass: Debussy Cello Sonata

IMG_8609_Mlungisi Mlungwana

Abel Selaocoe delves deep into the first movement of Debussy’s only sonata for cello

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When you start to learn this piece, you first need to understand Debussy’s influences and why he wrote it. There’s a beautiful, poignant story behind it: he was dying of cancer and hadn’t composed for a long time, and in a letter to the conductor Bernardino Molinari, he talks about having to relearn how to write. Being able to have a new perspective on your own practice is really interesting to me. When you return after time away there is an unfamiliarity but also a freshness because of new influences you may have picked up.

Debussy speaks about celebrating all things French, and the beginning of the sonata is a homage to the French Baroque, but as it continues you begin to see other styles. There are influences of gamelan on his sound world and, of course, Pierrot Lunaire (he originally subtitled the work ‘Pierrot is angry at the moon’). So you have to understand that layer of bizarre comedy and the influence of the commedia dell’arte characters before you begin to learn the music.

Three different realms

The beginning seems regal to me. You can be expressive but within certain rhythmic constraints that come with the Baroque style. The piano starts with the feeling of a dotted rhythm that allows for expression but also demonstrates that there is a rhythmic integrity to be adhered to. And when the cello comes in, it’s both a celebration of the key of D minor and at the same time a kind of fanfare, in keeping with this regal character…

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