January 19, 2020
Romberg’s Sonata for Cello and Piano in E minor is a beautiful piece. The arrangement between cello and piano is perfect and the piece is romantic without going overboard. Playing it, for me, is not without some challenges.
The Romberg E minor is written in three movements: Allegro non troppo, Andante grazioso, and Rondo Allegretto. This posting is about the first movement. I’ll write about the other two in a couple of future posts.
This movement follows the typical exposition, development, recapitulation form of the sonata. The exposition, or A section, is repeated. The movement is entirely in bass clef and ranges from low E on the C-string to an A harmonic above middle C on the A-string. The piece is wonderfully cellistic, meaning it feels right to play it on the cello.
Technically there are two challenges in the first movement: triplets and turns. There are also several places where a note value is skipped, which is a rhythm challenge.
There are five turns total with three starting on a down bow and the remaining two starting on an up bow. All of the turns follow either a pair of quarter notes or a half note. As the turns are written in sixteenth notes, you are skipping at least one note value, if not two from the preceding note into the turn. I have found it difficult to be confident in my ability to play the turns, especially the initial one in measure 7, so I tend to tense and panic, making them much harder to execute.
The solution to playing them with confidence has been to slow way down, and start with just the four sixteenth notes and the quarter note the follows at first.
m. 7 F# - G - F# - E - F#
Not only is slowing down important, but pausing between each repetition is vital. If you repeatedly play a passage without pausing, you stop thinking about what you just played and how you played it, and start playing mechanically.
Part of the difficulty in m. 7 is that there is a shift. Here is the whole measure plus the first note of m. 8.
m. 7 & 8 | F# - G - F# - E - F# - A - D - C - A - F# | E
You turn around the opening F# and then skip up to the open A string. While descending from D back down to the F#, you need to shift while playing the open A, so that you play F# with your 4th finger, allowing your 2nd finger to play the E in m. 8. There is a D# following the E. You could play the F# with your 3rd finger and extend backwards to the D#, but intonation of the D# is more reliable in half position. Measure 8 ends with a quarter rest, so there is plenty of time to return to first position.
Measure 13 is the second turn. This turn happens completely in 4th position, and there is no shift immediately following the turn. This turn has always been the easiest of the five for me to play accurately and reliably. Measure 13 begins with a half note G above middle C.
m. 13 & 14 | G - F# - G - F# - E - F# - G | F# - E - D - D |
Measure 15 & 16 follows the same pattern as 13 & 14, half note - turn - dotted quarter - eighth - quarter - quarter. Measure 15 begins on middle C.
m. 15 & 16 | C - B - C - B - A - B - C | B - A - D - D |
The last two turns are the same. The second one has a shift to half position at the end, to set up for the D# that follows. Measure 17 starts with F natural below middle C. The D# in m. 20 is played in half position.
m. 17 - 20 | F - G - F - E - F - A - D - C - A - F | E - D - C | | F - G - F - E - F - A - D - C - A - E | D# - F# - A |
These five turns are repeated in the recapitulation at the end of the movement.
Unlocking the first turn with slow repetitions and gradually increasing the tempo with the metronome helped all of the turns. Playing them from the recapitulation also helps, as they occur in different places along the staff, with breaks to the next staff happening in new places in the pattern. Visually the music looks different, even though the turns are identically to what was in the A section.
Of the 126 measures in the first movement, 33 have triplets. Being able to play a triplet per beat reliably, over and over, is the key to this movement. For me it is the relentlessness of the triplet passages that is hard. Your focus cannot slip or you’ll lose your place and the passage will collapse. In order from first to last the triplet passages have 8, 1, 9, 5, 7, and 3 measures each. For me the apparent, sudden, increase in tempo is the challenge. You move from a flowing, lyrical passage immediately into several measures of triplets (sometimes interspersed with quarter notes, or dotted eighth note sixteenth note triplet figures) where you are playing far more notes for the same four beats.
Solving the triplets was the single biggest challenge for this movement. The final triplet passage was where I started. Measures 122 - 124 start on E below middle C. The entire passage is all within first position, with one extension for the low F# at the end
m. 122 | E-G-B A-G-F# E-G-B A-G-F# m. 123 | E-F#-G F#-E-D C-D-E D-C-B m. 124 | A-B-C B-A-G F# - B
Learning to play the triplet passages was pure metronome work. The approach was to start with the metronome set for 8th notes at a slow speed and gradually increase the tempo. Once the metronome was too fast to really listen to individual clicks, approximately 160, we divided the setting by three and started counting quarter notes, once again slowly increasing the speed after successfully playing the passage.
Here are some of the metronome numbers for the triplet passage at m. 122, taken from my practice notes on November 26th:
For the eighth note: From 80 to 88 to 96 to 104 to 110 to 116 to 120 to 124 to 130
Dividing 130 by three, to switch from counting each note, to counting each triplet, I reset the metronome to 43.
For the triplet: From 43 to 45 to 47 to 50
Once I reached 50 I experimented with long bows, short bows, staccato notes.
If I skipped a day of triplet passage work, it would take far longer to return to the tempo of the previous practice session. Even overnight I would sometimes seemingly lose ground. However, as I completed more and more triplet passage work, the amount of “warm up” time needed to return to tempo decreased.
I started working on the Allegro non troppo movement on October 3rd, with an eye toward performing it on December 22th at a studio recital. Two weeks before the performance, at my lesson with my wife accompanying me on piano, we performed the movement for my teacher. With a couple of minor intonation problems and maybe one stumble, I was able to play through the piece. Three days before the performance, when my wife and I began our practice session with a start to finish performance of the piece, it completely fell apart. Passages that had never before been an issue were unplayable. The performance was a disaster. I contacted my teacher and asked to not perform in the recital. He and I discussed it at my lesson, and agreed that I would not play two days later.
It was upsetting and disheartening to have spent over two months working daily on this piece only to not perform it. Performance anxiety was something we hadn’t addressed in practicing. Imagining the other members of the studio (grade and high school aged children) and (worse) their parents watching and listening to me, was enough to completely derail me. Obviously I need to incorporate some kind of mock performance into my practice. Setting up a video camera that is blatantly pointed at me while playing, perhaps.
I haven’t set this piece aside. In fact I am now working on all three movements. I would like to master this piece. I want to be able to play it in front of other people, or a video camera, without hesitation or difficulty. Using the approach of passage work, and deliberate, slow playing using a metronome, I am slowly assembling the passages into movements, and the movements into a sonata.