Listen! you hear the grating roar
of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
the eternal note of sadness in.
(from “Dover Beach” by Matthew Arnold)
The Cello Sonata, Op.6 was written in 1932 while Barber was still a student at the Curtis Institute. Reminiscent of Brahms’ style, it possesses the Romantic lyricism and expressiveness of Barber’s most beloved works.
Although you may visualize something else, I see waves in the passionate opening of the first movement. Rising melodic minor 6ths and descending major 2nds are strung together to soar to a dramatic climax, only to fall back again and start over. I may be influenced by my daily jogs on the beach, but Barber ( a seasoned voyager) did use waves as a musical idea in his song “Dover Beach,” composed for baritone and string quartet in the year before he wrote the Cello Sonata. “Dover Beach” is a setting of Matthew Arnold’s poem of the same name.
In the first movement of the Cello Sonata, the lyrical second theme has the same heartfelt sincerity found in many of his other works, such as “Knoxville Summer of 1915” and “Adagio for Strings.”
Barber’s Protestant faith and admiration of J.S. Bach influenced many of his compositions. The chorale-like outer sections of this sonata’s second movement have an eloquent sadness that contrasts with the sprightly and playful middle section.
The expressive vocal quality and warm range of the Cello Sonata are some of its finest attributes. In addition to being an accomplished pianist and composer, Barber possessed a fine baritone voice. Many consider Samuel Barber’s songs to be his greatest achievement.