Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) composed his exuberant Sonata Op. 5/1 in F Major in 1796. At this time, his reputation as a virtuoso perfomer was spreading beyond the confines of aristocratic salons, and he undertook a tour of Prague, Dresden, Leipzig, and Berlin, where the two sonatas of Op. 5 were performed. In July of 1796, he and cellist Jean-Louis Duport played at the Prussian court for Friedrich Wilhelm II, an amateur cellist. (For their performance, Beethoven received a gold snuffbox, filled with gold coins; he "declared with pride that it was not an ordinary snuffbox, but such a one as it might have been customary to give to an ambassador.")
This sonata was the first important one for the combination of cello and piano to contain a fully written-out piano part. This groundbreaking work later served to inspire many composers – including both Mendelssohn siblings as well as Brahms and Chopin – to create their own sonatas for piano and cello.
Now past his 101st birthday, Elliott Carter (b. 1908) composed his jazzy, youthful Sonata an astonishing 60 years ago! It is hard to underestimate the impact Elliott Carter has had on the twentieth century. His music, while known as being extremely difficult, thorny, and performed only by the most tenacious musicians, is also overtly expressive and dramatic. He has said that "I regard my scores as scenarios, auditory scenarios, for performers to act out with their instruments, dramatizing the players as individuals and participants in the ensemble."
Through his music, Carter portrays a "different form of motion," in which players are not locked in step with the downbeat of every measure. He has said that such steady pulses remind him of soldiers marching or horses trotting, sounds that are not heard anymore in the late 20th century, and that he wants his music to capture the sort of continuous acceleration or deceleration experienced in an automobile or an airplane.
The sonata for cello and piano is from the middle of the twentieth century, and thus reflects some of the music of that time-that is, neoclassicism, lyricism, and tonal melodies. The sheer impact of Carter's revolutionary rhythmic treatment influenced countless composers after him.
The brilliant French composer, Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) was a master of mood– always writing with the lightest of touch – perfectly crafting phrases with sensitive poetic nuance. Poulenc felt deeply about the responsibility of a composer to his text and of a performer to both poetry and music. Poulenc wrote, "It is not only the lines of the poem that must be set to music, but all that lies between the lines and in the margins." These transcriptions, even without the words, show the depth of expression Poulenc achieved.
Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979) entered the Paris Conservatoire at age ten as a pianist and organist, and later studied with Gabriel Fauré. Her cantata La sirène won her second prize in the Prix de Rome in 1908. She was deeply affected by the death of her sister Lili in 1918, and from 1919 was no longer active as a composer, but devoted her life to teaching. All in all, Boulanger is believed to have taught over 600 American composers, many Canadian composers, as well as generations of European musicians.
It is told that Boulanger tolerated nothing but perfection from her students; On telling a seven-year old student she had been able to play the 48 Bach Preludes and Fugues by memory, he replied that for him this would be impossible. Boulanger replied "Nonsense! Do one a week, it will take you less than a year."