Introducing Sándor Jemnitz's Solo Cello Sonata

When talking about Hungarian cello music, Zoltán Kodály and György Ligeti come up immediately, and rightfully so. These two composers built monumental and lasting careers, even postmortem. Sándor (Alexander) Jemnitz (1890-1963) was a famous composer and critic of Kodály's generation. Jemnitz has left a substantial body of musical and literary works, some of which have stood the test of time. A student of Arnold Schoenberg and Max Reger, Jemnitz was the perfect representative to keep their legacies alive. Jemnitz had two obstacles that made him unpopular in Hungary: he openly stood against the folk music movement (which Bartók and Kodály were popularizing with great fervor), and he was an open socialist.

Jemnitz was a brilliant composer, easily on the level of Hindemith and Stravinsky. A few decades ago, Jemnitz's son started a push for the revival of his father's music. During this time, the world was reintroduced to the solo sonatas for flute, viola, and double bass, as well as the trio for violin, viola, and guitar. But with his son's death in the early 2010s came the the end of the revival.

In March 2019, I came across the solo sonata for cello at the UNCG Martha Blakeney Hodges Collection, in fact, not one version, but three different versions, from 1931 (probably in János Scholz's hand), 1933 (dated 1937 for Luigi Silva), and the 1940 publication (now out of print). All three versions were quite different from each other with regards to melodies and form. This sonata caught my attention, and I decided to learn the 1933 version. Since almost nothing was written in English about Jemnitz, I asked my friend and colleague Dr. Fanny Nemeth Weiss to help me get some more information on Jemnitz's cello sonata. She agreed to do some digging in libraries in Budapest. Thus began a great research project. We found out that the cello sonata started its life as a viola da gamba sonata in 1924, which then was transcribed for cello solo in the late 1920s. The cello sonata was performed several times in the 1930s by Vilmos Palotai of the Hungarian Quartet, and in the 1940s by Ede Banda, the teacher of Miklós Perényi.

To the best of our knowledge, the cello sonata lay dormant for around 70 years. I am reviving this beautiful 3-movement sonata during the 2019-20 concert season. I have already performed it 3 times in October 2019, and plan to bring it to the audiences of SE United States several more times this season.

Used by permission for the Martha Blakeney Hodges Collection.

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