Jerzy Fitelberg (1903-1951) was a Polish-Jewish composer who was naturalized as an American citizen in 1937. His father was the famous conductor Grzerorz Fitelberg. Jerzy wrote his Unaccompanied Cello Sonata in 1945. The Sonata was premiered by Stefan Auber on April 6, 1946 at the Pittsburgh Chapter of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM). The premiere took place at 8:30pm in the Exhibition Hall at the College of Fine Arts of the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University). Other pieces on the program included one of Hindemith's violin sonatas, performed by Isaac Stern and Alexander Zakin, and piano sonatas by Copland, Thomson (nos. 3 and 4), and Stravinsky, performed by Webster Aitken. Virgil Thomson and Jerzy Fitelberg were present at the performance.
It is unknown whether the Cello Sonata was intended for Auber or Piatigorsky, but Fitelberg chose Piatigorsky to edit the Sonata for the second publication. The Sonata was first published in manuscript form by the Russian-American Music Publishers in 1945, and subsequently in typeset form by Omega Music Edition in 1948. Fitelberg wrote at least two letters to Piatigorsky in Russian, thanking him for taking on the task of editing the work for publication, asking him to hurry up with the editing process, and pleading with him to play the Sonata himself. There is no evidence of Piatigorsky responding to these letters or performing this work. Both editions of the Sonata are now in public domain in the US and Canada; in the US because both publishers allowed the 28 year copyright law lapse without renewal.
The Sonata was reviewed in Notes magazine by Willian Klenz (former professor at Duke and SUNY Binghamton). Mr. Klenz writes the following about the Sonata: "Fitelberg's Sonata is a large, fervid composition with moments of evocative power, and in sustained performance would be a convincing, forceful work, erring on the side of excessive length and too constant intensity (we have not yet found the substitute for the broken chord and scale formulae which served the Baroque). In a generally coherent texture there are occasional intrusions of unassimilated bits identified with other styles, and embarrassing contradictions between diatonic harmonically derived tunes and an otherwise chromatic procedure."
Fitelberg's Sonata is about 16 minutes long, although the composer writes "12.5 minutes" at the bottom of the last page. The four-movement work has two slow and two fast movements. The second half of the finale is a reprise of the first movement. The Sonata is tonal, but not functional. It is very idiomatic for the cello. Fitelberg relies on quartal, quintal, octatonic, and whole-tone motives. Interestingly, the work starts with the four open strings played from low to high.
It is my hope that contemporary cellists take note of this important American cello work and revive the post-WWII American spirit in music. I would like to thank Stacey Krim (and the Martha Blakeney Hodges Special Collections), the New York Public Library, and Carol Merrill-Mirsky (and the Piatigorsky Archives) for helping me in learning more about this beautiful work. I will be re-premiering Fitelberg's Cello Sonata at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Jackson Library Reading Room on October 3 of this year, with subsequent performances in the Southeast US.
You may listen and download the recording of Jerzy Fitelberg's Sonata, recorded in the War Memorial Chapel at Bob Jones University.