Cello sonata

Cello sonata

Claude Debussy

Gary Hoffman's masterclasses

English 56 min Cello

In this session, Gary Hoffman and his student Joao Goncalves examine a variety of technical elements and dynamics.

Produced by the Saline royale Academy in October, 2020 at Arc-et-Senans.

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The masterclass

About this masterclass

Professor Gary Hoffman and student Joao Goncalves work together to bring Debussy’s meticulously crafted cello sonata to life. Hoffman stresses the importance of following Debussy’s compositional instructions rather than succumbing to the habits in modern performances that are sometimes easier to execute, yet not what Debussy intended. Hoffman offers several suggestions for bowing and fingerings to improve control, expression, and ease of technique. 

Moving through the piece, Hoffman also provides some imagery for what Debussy meant to portray, and techniques to achieve those sounds. Furthermore, in the pursuit of achieving the highest level of expression and contrast while staying true to Debussy’s vision, Hoffman discusses vibrato speed, bow pressure, timing, and dynamics. 

What we learn in this cello masterclass

  1. Adhering to the composer’s written instructions.

  2. Finding better fingerings and bowing.

  3. Giving the music space.

  4. Conjuring imagery.

  5. Maintaining unity and precision.

Claude Debussy’s Cello Sonata is perhaps the most raw, unrefined, and emotionally vulnerable sonata of his three sonatas. The first movement presents a lyrical theme on the cello almost interchangeably generating elated outpourings with ‘passive moanings.’ 

The middle movement contains three voices with a piano that has a binary and melodic role with the cello, accompanied by another cello playing low plucky pizzicato notes, almost imitating an upright jazz bass. The movement moves and shifts between darkness and light, and the cello’s opening ascending sequence brings about and incorporates a dancing theme. 
This composition is structured in the style of an 18th century mono-thematic sonata and uses pentatonic and whole-tone scales: a common feature in Debussy’s works. The piece is technically demanding with features like spiccato, flautando bowing, false harmonics, left-hand pizzicato, and more.

  • Student:Joao Goncalves
  • Instruments: Cello
  • Date:27 October 2020
  • Academy:Academy Oct 25 - Nov 1, 2020
Gary Hoffman

Gary Hoffman

I see people do things, and they know what is going to happen if they are not careful, so they try to be careful. And then with nerves, it gets insecure. I understand that, of course, but do we have to put ourselves in that position? What if we find a different place in the bow or different fingering that allows us to play it with confidence?

Gary Hoffman

Sheet music

Aim for excellence! You can improve your skills with expert advice. Download the annotated sheet music of this cello masterclass. Please note that this piece has been annotated in accordance to Gary Hoffman’s feedback and comments.

Gary Hoffman

Gary Hoffman

In 1986 when he won the Paris-based Rostropovich International Competition.

Gary Hoffman is one of the most outstanding cellists of our time, combining instrumental mastery, great beauty of sound, and a poetic sensibility in his distinctive and memorable performances. Born in Vancouver, Canada, in 1956, he studied the cello with Janos Starker. Hoffman gained international fame in 1986 upon his victory as the first North American to win the Rostropovich International Competition in Paris. A frequent soloist with the world’s most noted orchestras, he has appeared with the Chicago, London, Montreal, Toronto, San Francisco,  and more. Mr. Hoffman collaborates regularly with such celebrated conductors like André Prévin, Charles Dutoit, Mstislav Rostropovich, Pinchas Zuckerman, Andrew Davis, Herbert Blomstedt, Kent Nagano, Jésus Lopez-Cobos, and James Levine.

He performs on major recital and chamber music series throughout the world, although he spends the majority of his time between Europe and America. He is a frequent guest of string quartets including Emerson, Tokyo, Borromeo, Brentano, and Ysaye. Hoffman is a regular guest of the Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society. Additionally, he has has premiered many concertos (Laurent Petitgirard, Joel Hoffman, Renaud Gagneux, Gil Shohat, Graciane Finzi, Dominique Lemaître, French Premiere of Elliott Carter Cello Concerto, and more). Moreover, he is the guest of main halls such as the Théâtre du Châtelet, Théâtre des Champs Elysées, Amsterdam Concertgebouw, Kennedy Center, and numerous festivals: Ravinia, La Jolla, Schleswig Holstein, Verbier, Festival International de Colmar, Evian, Prades Festival, Honk Kong International Chamber Music Festival, Storioni, and more.

Gary Hoffman plays and gives masterclasses all over the globe.  He is a close part of the Kronberg Academy family for years, intimately involved in the Academy Masters, the festivals, and the masterclass weeks. In September 2011 he was appointed as Professor at the Musical Chapel in Brussels.


Claude Debussy

Claude Debussy was born in 1862, and is considered the originator and foremost representative of musical impressionism. He was admitted to the Paris Conservatoire at the age of 10 and never stopped pursuing music, first as a pianist and then as a composer. The parallel fifths, the cancellation of sensitive notes, tonal ambiguity, modal scales, and extended chords, among other things, are elements masterfully used by Debussy and serve to make his music true masterpieces recognized throughout the world. Debussy is one of the most important composers in history, and his influence exceeds even the limits of "classical music.”

In 1880, he began to compose music for the piano and give piano lessons. Later, he enrolled in Ernest Guiraud’s composition class, where he also began working as an accompanist in Victorine Moreau-Sainti’s singing classes. During this period in his life, Debussy struggled financially, but he began to cultivate his life. He explored other types of music and art forms, such as attending a Javanese gamelan performance at the Universal Exposition of 1889, discovering Mussorgsky, and befriending fellow musician and composer Ernest Chausson. Debussy’s career as a composer is closely linked to his relationship with Symbolist and Parnassian poets: Stéphane Mallarmé being an essential figure. These influences, together with the renewal of Impressionist painting, were aspects that pushed him towards the search for an original and personal artistic path. “I've had enough of music, of the same everlasting landscape; I want to see a Manet and hear some Offenbach,” he wrote while in Rome.

In a sad turn of events, Debussy was diagnosed with intestinal cancer and was operated on in 1915. He was never able to recover the fullness of his strength. He finished his Violin Sonata in March 1917, and three other sonatas remained unrealized. His last concert appearance was at Saint-Jean-de-Luz in September 1917, where he played the Violin Sonata with Gaston Poulet. He died in Paris six months later.

At the Conservatoire, he acquired classical knowledge: the likes of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schuman, Handel, and Liszt. Later on, he would recognize the artistic mastery of the Group of Five, which was made up of contemporary Russian composers (he acquired his taste for ancient and oriental modes from the Russians); the Japanese gamelan, and Chopin's music. Inspired by international art and culture, Claude Debussy’s music are masterpieces celebrated all around the world.

Photo credit: BNF Gallica

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