Free PDF: 5 Popper Etudes

Free PDF: 5 Popper Etudes

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Let’s talk cello sonata.

The cello sonata is a rich medium of chamber music, offering composers a palette to really express themselves at every point in the development of their artistry.

And thus, it has become a widely popular medium, being one of the most performed instrumentations for chamber music.

Traditionally, a cello sonata would refer to a piece featuring the cello that takes the shape of the sonata form, but as the sonata form developed over the centuries, new cello and piano duos came about that really challenge how much of their dna is a sonata. In this post, we’ll stick to pieces for cello and piano regardless of whether they truly inhabit the traits of a sonata.

Without further ado, in no particular order, let’s jump into some of the most significant works for cello sonata.

1. Claude Debussy - Cello Sonata

Starting off this list is the 1915 masterpiece composed by Claude Debussy, his one and only Cello Sonata.

For a large duration of the first and second movements, the music is remarkably bare - the cello and piano are frequently quite exposed, with lots of open space in between the lush, rich impressionist harmonies of the Prologue. 

The Sérénade enters with a jumpy blues-like texture in the piano, with sharp jabs of low cello pizz and piano staccato attacks creating a tip-toe of rhythmic nuance, which counters beautifully with the contained lyrical moments in both the piano and cello that interject the punctual gestures. 

The third movement, Finale, brings back the previously stated themes in an ecstatic, celebratory manner, bringing the piece to a dramatic and joyous climax.

The cello sonata is one of Debussy’s three sonatas that he composed at the end of his life while battling cancer, the other two being his violin sonata and his sonata for flute, viola, and harp.

Debussy saw these sonatas as a true testament to the French compositional principles he aligned himself with, an aim which to me seems quite in line with the musical direction he took in this sonata.

Regardless, Debussy’s cello sonata has remained one of the most iconic pieces for cello and piano, and potentially the most iconic from the impressionist era.

Watch the preview for famed cellist Clive Greensmith’s course on the Debussy Cello Sonata, available in full to all tonebase subscribers:

If you’d like to watch the full course, click here to sign up for a free 14-day trial to unlock over a hundred courses from the world’s leading cellists.

2. Johannes Brahms - Cello Sonata No. 2 in F Major, Op. 99

Next up is Brahms’ 2nd Cello Sonata, composed in 1886 for cellist Robert Hausmann, and premiered in Vienna by Hausmann and Brahms later that year.

The first movement is at times a tremolo-fest in the piano and cello, and at others a striking showcase of virtuosity in the hands of clear motivic exposition. The second movement jumps to F# minor and takes the pace down, exposing the instruments much more and offering a very intimate introduction of new themes. The third takes us into a jolty scherzo, with a stark reminder that this music is the mature Brahms, a presentation of the approach to harmonic rhythm and content common in his later works (much in contrast to his first sonata, which we will dive into later).

Brahms wraps up his 2nd sonata with a comparatively gentle send-off in the form of a rondo.

While this sonata is now received as one of the most iconic cello works of the late 19th Century, it had some trouble after its premiere with audience reception.

Critics, such as composer Hugo Wolf, commented on the “messiness” of the music (that is to the standards of the time).

However, this didn’t stop the piece from maintaining a significant legacy in the broader cello chamber repertoire.

Watch this preview of Clive Greensmith’s tonebase lesson on the Brahms Cello Sonata No. 2:

Click here to download the tonebase Edition of this score for free.

3. Samuel Barber - Sonata for Violoncello and Piano

Samuel Barber’s Sonata for Violoncello and Piano was largely a career launcher for the composer.

He wrapped up the piece while still studying at the Curtis Institute, and the piece’s strong merit won him several awards and residencies.

While much of this piece is very emblematic of the emerging American style of the time, many moments feel like callbacks to works by Brahms, offering a sense of grounding to the musical material.

The sonata is in three movements, maintaining the principal elements of the sonata form while adding Barber-isms throughout the material.


4. Witold Lutosławski - Grave (Metamorphoses) for Cello and Piano

Jumping ahead to 1981, we arrive at a later work of Witold Lutosławski, a single movement piece that captures the essence of scarcity in musical sound.

Formally, Lutosławski presents a spiral of music that builds to a striking climax at rehearsal mark 10, then trickles down to expose the motivic core of the music.

Cellistically, there is a lot to learn from this piece on structuring phrases in a contemporary setting, and setting a clear pace to how those lines are treated.

5. Franz Schubert - Arpeggione Sonata

Franz Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata is, as the name suggests, a sonata for an instrument called the arpeggione:

best cello sonatas: image of an arpeggione
(credit: The Strad)

It’s a fretted instrument tuned to the same pitches as the guitar, but positioned upright and upscaled to be bowed like a cello.

However, this piece was transcribed for several instruments, with the transcription for cello being the most common.

Here is a performance of the piece with the arpeggione in case you’re curious:

Despite its origins being for another instrument, the Arpeggione Sonata has become a prominent work in the cello repertoire, having been performed and recorded by the likes of Yo-Yo Ma, Miklós Perényi, and many others.

6. Ludwig van Beethoven - Cello Sonata No. 3 in A Major, Op. 69

Our first Beethoven entry to this list is arguably the most prominent sonatas from Beethoven’s five cello sonatas, his Cello Sonata No. 3 in A Major.

This is a work that very clearly represents the sound of middle-period Beethoven, an era in which Beethoven started to really face the challenges of his impending deafness. 

Beethoven gives much more room for development in this sonata, and grants the piano and cello more of an equal role in the music (Beethoven’s earlier sonatas tended to give priority to the piano).

Analysis aside, this is a quintessential work for cello, and a defining work of the cello sonata as a whole.

You can watch cellist Inbal Segev’s wonderful commentary on this piece in her tonebase course:

Click here to download the tonebase Edition of this score for free.

7. Ludwig van Beethoven - Cello Sonata No. 5 in D Major, Op. 102, No. 2

Moving along in Beethoven’s career, we arrive at his 5th and final cello sonata, taking place during Beethoven’s late period.

It was written in the same year as his 4th sonata, and thus bears many stylistic similarities.

As is common in Beethoven’s late period, this sonata maintains the overarching ideas of the sonata form, but deviates from them in his approach to modulations and harmonic progression.

Cellist Gary Hoffman offers excellent insight into the cellistic perspective on this sonata in this tonebase course:

The Sonata was frequented by cellists Mischa Maisky, Mstislav Rostropovich, and Pablo Casals, and has become a significant work in the broader cello sonata repertoire.

Click here to download the tonebase Edition of this score for free.

8. Johannes Brahms - Cello Sonata No. 1 in E Minor, Op. 38

Returning to Brahms, we have a work that feels more grounded in the great composers that preceded Brahms.

There is an evident influence of Beethoven on this piece, especially in the motivic development of the music.

In comparison to Brahms’ 2nd sonata, this one presents its material much more clearly and consistently.

As opposed to the ferociousness of the 2nd, this piece really takes its time laying out the musical material.

Cellistically, the piece really digs into the essence of legato playing, especially in the emotionally rich 2nd movement.

Check out Lawrence Lesser’s tonebase lesson on this piece:

Click here to download the tonebase Edition of this score for free.

9. Felix Mendelssohn - Cello Sonata No. 1 in B-Flat Major, Op. 45

At a relatively similar time as the Brahms Sonata No. 1, Mendelssohn was finishing up his first cello sonata, written for the composer's brother, named Paul.

This sonata is known for its callback to Classical era compositional approaches, with more of a regularity in the progression of musical material.

All in all, it’s a whimsical piece with lots to unpack for the cello.

10. Sergei Rachmaninoff - Cello Sonata in G Minor

Last up on our list is the rich, evocative Cello Sonata in G Minor by Sergei Rachmaninoff.

Written for cellist/close friend/best man Anatoliy Brandukov, the piece brings with it all of the lush harmonic characteristics everyone associates with Rachmaninoff’s music, but the music is also carefully distributed between the instruments.

The piano and cello feel like equals in this piece, which is a pleasant dynamic and works well with Rachmaninoff’s style.

Unfortunately, this would end up being the composer’s last contribution to chamber music.


From Debussy’s evocative harmonic testament to French music to the formal innovations of Beethoven, the cello sonata has a lot to offer as a medium.

If you’re an active cellist looking to learn the repertoire above, I highly suggest you check out tonebase Cello.

On tonebase, you’ll find over a hundred lessons with the world’s leading cellists, such as Mischa Maisky, Jan Vogler, Amit Peled, and many more.

As a bonus, members are invited to weekly live events, an online forum of passionate cellists, and resources such as custom scores and annotated workbooks.

Click here to sign up for a free 14-day trial, and start accelerating your progress on the cello today.

Happy practicing!

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Dave McLellan

Concert & Chamber Musician

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