Cello Sonata (Britten)

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The Cello Sonata, Op. 65 is a work by English composer Benjamin Britten. It was premiered in July of 1961 at the Aldeburgh Festival near Aldeburgh, Suffolk.


On 21 September 1960, a concert at the Royal Festival Hall in London would introduce Britten to the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. The program included the British premiere of Dmitri Shostakovich's First Cello Concerto, performed by Rostropovich, alongside Britten’s The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra. The two composers shared a ceremonial audience box. Shostakovich later confided to Rostropovich:

“Slava, do you know I am aching from so many bruises along my side.” “What happened, Dmitri Dmitriyevich, did you fall down?” “No, but at the concert tonight, every time Britten admired something in your playing, he would poke me in the ribs, and say, ‘Isn’t that simply marvelous!’ As he liked so many things throughout the concerto, I am now suffering!”[1]

After the show, Rostropovich, already established as an obsessive commissioner of new works, pleaded with Britten to write him a piece for cello. Mesmerized by the earlier performance, the composer quickly consented, and a year later produced the Cello Sonata, Op. 65. This became Britten’s first of five major works written for Rostropovich over the course of the next decade - the others being the Cello Symphony and the three suites for solo cello. Britten’s correspondence with Rostropovich reveals Britten’s humility in the face of Rostropovich’s reputation: he confesses “I may have made some mistakes” and quips that “the pizzicato movement will amuse you; I hope it is possible!”[2] In the scherzo-pizzicato, one can immediately detect an indebtedness, in its timbre and counterpoint, to the Balinese gamelan tradition.[3] The final Moto perpetuo movement uses the DSCH motif (the musical transformation of Shostakovich’s name) as a tribute to the composer who inspired Britten to write for cello.[4]


  1. ^ Philip Reed and Mervyn Cooke, eds, Letters from a Life: The Selected Letters of Benjamin Britten, Volume 5, 1913-1976 (Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press, 2010), 277.
  2. ^ Reed, 278.
  3. ^ Mervyn Cooke, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Benjamin Britten (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 250.
  4. ^ Julian Lloyd Webber, “Britten’s Third Cello Suite,” Strad 91 (Mar 1981): 796.


  • Reed, Philip and Mervyn Cooke, eds. Letters from a Life: The Selected Letters of Benjamin Britten, Volume 5, 1913-1976. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press, 2010.
  • Cooke, Mervyn, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Benjamin Britten. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
  • Lloyd Webber, Julian. “Britten’s Third Cello Suite.” Strad 91 (Mar 1981), 796-797.