A cello sonata is a musical work for solo cello and accompaniment in three or four movements. The accompaniment is normally on piano, though earlier music made use of a continuo. A sonata normally begins with an allegro movement, continues with a slower movement and finishes with another quick movement, such as a rondo. If a cello sonata is in four movements, the third may be a minuet. The first movement may be in sonata form — taking the structure of an exposition, development and recapitulation — though this form is not necessarily employed.
The cello is an instrument in the violin family whose four strings are tuned in perfect fifths. It is the largest stringed instrument used in the modern orchestra, apart from the double bass. The lower tone of the cello compared to the violin gives it a distinctive sound as a solo instrument that is considered to more closely resemble the human male voice. Cello sonatas with piano accompaniment are considered technically difficult to write, because of the challenge of blending the low tone of the cello with the bass notes of the piano.
The earliest cello sonatas were written by composers such as Antonio Vivaldi. Later, the cello sonata also was explored by Ludwig van Beethoven and Johannes Brahms. Examples of cello sonatas from the 20th century include those of Edvard Grieg, Samuel Barber and Benjamin Britten. The cello is favored as a solo instrument because of the beauty of its tone, and composers have written works for the instrument despite the challenges presented. Frederic Chopin took great pains over his cello sonata and, despite his musical experience, is said to have spent as much time deleting passages as adding new sections.
The style and tone of cello sonatas have varied from one period to another and according to the approach of the composer of each work. Vivaldi wrote his cello sonatas in the Baroque style with a large continuo. He used them to express a thoughtful style, producing contemplative opening movements in contrast to much of his writing for other instruments. Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Cello Sonata in G Minor is written in the style of the Romantic Period, and he gives equal weight to the cello and piano in the work. Later in the 20th century, Sergei Prokofiev’s cello sonata was rather more cheerful in tone, demonstrating that the sound of the cello can represent more than brooding and tragedy.