Martinů Cello Sonata no. 3, H. 340

performed by János Starker, cello; Rudolf Firkušný, piano, or below by Jan Páleníček, cello; Jitka Čechová, piano

The third cello sonata occupies ground somewhere between that of the concerto and the symphony. Its form is fluid… The looser process of constant evolution, his version of ‘fantasia’, was more congenial, and these years were devoted to its consolidation into a compositional method.

Kenneth Dommett


Only in the Third Sonata does one hear more codified, mainstream Martinů but that’s only because the use of simultaneous tonalities is more a source of spice and wit.

David Patrick Stearns

(cover image by Jez Timms)

We again find ourselves introducing, unsurprisingly, another composer in my Editor’s Choice series, this one more along the lines of interest and admiration rather than passion or excitement, at least so far. He hasn’t stirred in me the level of excitement that Diamond or Simpson have, but is unquestionably a composer worth spending some time on. This is already at least his fourth appearance on the blog. Fifth actually.

Martinů’s third cello sonata is dedicated to Dutchman Hans Kindler, the founding conductor of America’s National Symphony Orchestra and former principal cellist of the Philadelphia Orchestra, says Richard Freed at the Kennedy Center. It was premiered in Washington in 1952.

As to the timing of this piece, Freed also gives us a bit of clarification about the location of its composition:

The third and last was composed during the end of his American period, but not in America: he wrote it France in 1952, during his first trip back since his departure a dozen years earlier; he then returned to the United States just long enough to get his things together for a permanent return to Europe the following year.

The work is in three movements, with a playing time of a little under 20 minutes:

  1. Poco andante
  2. Andante
  3. Allegro (ma non presto)

After a boldly colorful opening from the piano, the cello floats in, as if on a cloud. It’s a very sweet, lyrical thing, and seems to provide the basic content used in the faster section. There’s a bouncier piano cadenza of sorts, and as the movement progresses, I struggle to find any sort of true formal or definitive sonata form, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a connection to the opening material, as we’ve stated. However, we do get what seems like a formal, dead-on recapitulation, or at least a repeat, of that opening content. It’s livelier than an andante at its climax, but ends much as it began. The overriding impression of this entire work can be typified in this first movement. Throughout the piece, there’s a memorable charm, a sort of subtle beauty that impresses and sticks with the listener.

The second movement andante is somber and quiet at first, as may be expected of a central (ostensibly) slow movement, but it quickly builds to a lively passage. Aside from the few more virtuosic threads, the work isn’t terribly different in mood from the first, its softness slightly softer, more mellow than the first.

The finale, even with its allegro, presents at most a kind of springy buoyancy, although there are cadenza-like passages that ratchet up the energy quite a bit. Unlike some other pieces we have discussed (or will) for cello and piano, this work is really rather lighthearted, carefree. It’s milder than, say, Prokofiev or Weinberg (spoiler alert) but certainly not light on the demands made by the performers, as seen by the busy closing pages of the work.

In regards to its place in Martinů’s stylistic development, David Doughty, writing for Naxos, says that “The Third Sonata of 1952 is perhaps a more strictly classical work, one of the last of those pieces written in this style before the Sixth Symphony of the following year.” He says that all three sonatas are written in three movements, but I find the contrast between the three movements of this work to be far less starkly contrasting than they could be. That’s not to say the work is diminutive in any way, and I’d certainly be more than happy to hear it on a recital program somewhere, but I’m not holding my breath. We’ll see.

As mentioned above, we’ll be featuring more of Martinů, his six symphonies, string quartets, and other chamber music, but not for now. We’ll be touching on two more inductees to the Editor’s Choice series before moving on to a big series, this year’s first, so please do stay tuned, and thank you so much for reading.



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