Zoltán Kodály - Sonata for Solo cello Opus 8


Zoltán Kodály
Sonata Opus 8 for solo violoncello

Christoph Henkel
violoncello Goffriller

"Choc" du Monde de la Musique n°137 
"un événement exceptionnel" de Télérama Hors-série 1990

Digital/Digital/iTunes Plus

Kodály played the violin, the viola and the piano, but his favourite instrument was the violoncello. He taught himself how to play it when he was a student in Nagyszombat (today Trnava, Slovakia). In some six chamber pieces, he achieved a striking synthesis of the principles developed by Bach, the forms passed down by the masters of the Viennese school, the harmonic experiments of the romantic period and the newly rediscovered lilt of the traditional folk music combining gypsy instrumentation with genuine folk song.

The present sonata in three movements, with the final two interconnected, reveals a highly individual use of the sonata form. In order to give maximum freedom to the melodic material employed Kodály makes use of the sonata form merely as a guide for unconstrained phrasing that unfolds with the naturalness of improvisation. The bars separating the measures in the score are not apparent to the listener, and the performer uses them solely as reference points in a musical progression which is surprisingly untrammelled. Form is used to give a sense of economy and rigour to the piece, and a concurrent striving for unity is evident in the repeats. When a melodic cluster, measure or phrase is repeated, it undergoes a metamorphosis in terms of form, rhythm or tone colour (harmonic treatment). These can be expanded in recitativo form (in the slow adagio movement, the repeat of the theme in 6/8 time is taken twice as slowly). Contracted or given a different rhythm and thus different "strong" notes, ultimately occurring in a different key (or mode). Through these devices, Kodály manages to reconstitute one of the most important underlying principles of folk music : the concept of continuous variation. The immense tapestry making up Opus 8 is constructed from a single theme.

The result is music combining freedom of form, flexibility of phrasing, clarity of construction and thematic unify : The sonata's harmonic structure exhibits the same basic approach. The tonic key of B minor, involving a scordatura chord (the bass strings are lowered by a hall-tone, producing the chord B-F#-D-A), serves as the tonic reference to which the piece repeatedly returns. Containing modal inflexions (from the Phrygian mode, primarily) that foster the construction of numerous polytonal chords, the harmonic language employed may appear to make extremely free with the tonal order. And yet, it is the tonal order that decisively underlies the whole. The impression of improvisation and freedom projected by the work lies in the technical virtuosity and novelty Kodály has invented for the violoncello. The instrument is used like a harp, a cymbalo; it is made to sound like bagpipes or like a gypsy band playing their verbunkos music ... Every technical trick imaginable is called into play : double and triple chords, different methods of using the strings ("on the bridge","on the wood", "on the frets", harmonically, left-hand pizzicati, tremolos, trill, open chords), but this is not virtuosity for its own sake. The effect being sought (and successfully achieved) is to recreate the techniques used on old instruments (cymbalo, zither, pipe, etc.), to convey the illusion of polyphony, and to take maximum advantage of tone colour; in short, to combine (as Bach did in his "Sarabandes") the sophisticated with the folk.

The first movement of the sonata, allegro maestoso ma appassionato in 3/4 time, is an epic, lyric recitativo. Written in sonata form it presents a magnificent progression in which all the chords relate to the tonic (B), while in the repeat section they relate to the dominant (F#). A complete understanding of the work requires intimate knowledge both of Bach's Suites, and of modern compositional techniques, as shown in the three first measures, in which the opening chords immediately impose, risoluto, a tension maintained during nine whole minutes of alternating appassionato recitativos, fluid reveries on the A chord, and, finally, a sequence of two repeats in tempo primo, the first mounting to an initial climax in a register more often associated with the flute or the violin than with the violoncello, and the second to a sforzando-fortissimo passage immediately followed by a pianissimo one underscoring the tonal and dynamic contrasts. The movement concludes on the same two chords that were used in the introduction.

The adagio (con gran'espressione) in 6/8 time appears to soar above the constraints of form. The violoncello sings in a mood that is successively pensive and pastoral (in an alternation of soothing simple or double ternary rhythms in 6/8 and 9/8 time), and whimsical. Kodály was strongly influenced by Richard Strauss' Don Quixote, and in the con moto section (with its fierce forte) we have unpredictable, capricious dance rhythms in a series of triplets and quintuplets marked 12/8. This is a dazzling display of fireworks on the part of the violoncello, one made up of tremolos and of swift arpeggios which nonetheless return to a second exposition of the theme, now transformed beyond all recognition by hammering gypsy cymbalo accents. Kodály manipulates the B-flat major tonic with its relative major C minor. The two cadences, in addition to their Magyar atmosphere, also use the ambiguity of the G-E-flat duo, resolving it in the key of B.

The allegro molto vivace finale (in 2/4 time) combines the orthodoxy of the sonata form and the rhapsodic freedom of a feverish rondo. Dotted eighth notes are used to introduce the "theme", which sounds more like an air for bagpipes than a ritournelle for strings. The rhythm then accelerates with a sixteenth-note passage. The melodic line is by turns firm (fermata on the bass F) and explosively capricious, using pizzicati and variable dance rhythms for an effect that is at once festive and trancelike. The first fifteen measures of this "bagpipe" theme continue to influence the succeeding transformations. Entries in F major give new life to the harmonic mood, bringing with them a repeat of the initial fifteen-measure theme in the original tonic of B, and in a burst of arpeggios. A major transitional section, making broad use of tremolos and trills increasing in intensity from pianissimo to fortissimo, prepares the abbreviated recapitulation prior to the concluding coda, a series of arpeggios in which the key of C takes over for the first time from the key of B. These three final measures demand from the performer a kind of virtuosity in the treble key (triple forte) which stuns all non-Hungarian cellists who have ever tried it.

This masterful score is dedicated to Jenö Kerpely, who gave the premiere performance on 7 May 1918 during the second of a series of concerts devoted solely to works by Kodály. The Viennese premiere took place on 20 June 1920, with Kerpely again performing, this time at a concert sponsored by an association founded by Arnold Schönberg. The piece again produced a sensation when it was performed at the SIMC (International Society for Contemporary Music) on 7 August 1923.

Texts After Pierre-Emile Barbier originals 

Writer's note : The passages quoted from the Sonata Opus 8 by Zoltán Kodály are taken primarily from "Guide de la Musique de Chambre" by the same author, Editions Fayard, Paris 1989.

Christoph Henkel

Christoph Henkel was born in Germany in 1946. He received his first cello lessons when he was six years old. A first prize winner in the Young Musicians Competition, he obtained a scholarship to study in the United States with the great János Starker.

In 1971 he held a teaching position at the University of Illinois, and since 1973 has served as professor at the School of Music in Freiburg im Breisgau.

Like Gérard Poulet, he has played all over the world with the best orchestras and conductors. His instrument is a large Goffriller formerly owned by conductor Sir John Barbirolli (who began his career as a cellist) and, subsequently, by Joseph Schüster.


Sonate opus 8 pour violoncelle
à Eugène de Kerpely

Allegro maestoso ma appassionato
Allegro molto vivace


"Choc" du Monde de la Musique n°137 
"un événement exceptionnel" de Télérama Hors-série 1990
© 2018 Harmonic Classics