Approaching Rhythm in Édouard Lalo’s Sonata for Cello & Piano in A minor

By Miranda Wilson

Anyone expecting Édouard Lalo’s cello sonata (1856) to sound anything like his cello concerto is in for a surprise. While the concerto, like Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole for violin and orchestra, comes from Lalo’s “Spanish” period of the 1870s, the sonata comes from two decades earlier. It was 1856, the year of Robert Schumann’s death, and two years after the first publication of Schumann’s own cello concerto. I can’t help feeling that had Schumann written a cello sonata, it might have sounded like Lalo’s. While Lalo (1823–92) never quotes directly from the Schumann concerto, the keys of the three movements are the same as Schumann’s (A minor, F major, A minor) and the phrases and harmonies are distinctly Schumannesque. At the same time, it seems to foreshadow the compositions of Saint-Saëns, with significant correspondences between the last movement of Lalo’s cello sonata and the first movement of Saint-Saëns’ first cello concerto.

The Lalo sonata is a wildly Romantic piece of music demanding a big, concerto-esque tone. In that regard, it provides good preparatory training for the more difficult concerto. There’s another similarity, one that’s common to compositions from all Lalo’s style periods, and that’s a complicated rhythmic structure. In his cello concerto, Lalo’s predilections for compound time and difficult subdivisions of the beat have bedeviled many a first-time learner. In the cello sonata, even if he only strays into compound time in the second movement, Lalo’s rhythms present many demands for the cellist and pianist. One player will often have to play triplets against the other player’s 16th notes, including dotted and double-dotted rhythms that demand absolute precision in their opposing attacks. This is something that happens in harder cello-piano sonatas, such as those by Brahms, Franck, and Rachmaninoff, so it makes sense to master the concepts in Lalo’s rather easier sonata.

Initial Preparations

When learning new repertoire, it’s always wise to spend time studying the full score to become familiar with the formal, harmonic, and thematic structures of the piece, as well as any spots that may be hard to get together in rehearsal. Since the cellist, unlike the pianist, doesn’t get to read from a full score, it’s a good idea to make a habit of penciling rhythmic cues from the piano part into the cello part. One example requiring extra rhythmic care is a passage from the first movement where cellist and pianist alternate opposing triplet and dotted rhythms, both of which must be played with meticulous strictness (Ex. 1, p 61).



Every percussionist practices cross-rhythms constantly, probably starting before breakfast. String players should be doing this, too, and too many of us aren’t. Lalo’s sonata features many instances of two-against-three and three-against-four, and while these rhythms aren’t hard, they require careful forethought and clear-cut attacks.

A percussionist friend taught me some mnemonic devices that help to internalize the overall pattern of cross-rhythms: “nice cup of tea” for two against three and “pass the bread and butter” for three against four (Ex. 2: cross-rhythms). Slapping your hands against your thighs, or on a table, practice these cross-rhythms daily for rhythmic confidence in performance.

Sing & Conduct

To avoid note-learning errors, and to plan expressive phrasing away from the physical demands of the instrument, turn on the metronome and conduct your way through the score, singing the cello part. (It’s OK if you aren’t a great singer; you’re doing this for phrasing and rhythmic accuracy.) First-time learners may find the second movement’s meter change between 3/8 and 9/16 disconcerting, but remember that the beat stays constant. What changes is the division of the beat in the transition from simple to compound time, and 9/16 is the composer’s way of avoiding repeatedly having to write triplets (Ex. 3).


Recording & Critical Listening

It’s dismayingly easy to learn a rhythm wrong, so once you’ve mastered the basics of playing the cello part using the metronome, record yourself and listen along with the score to make sure your rhythm is perfect. You’ll find that the top pitfalls are:

(1) Playing the 16th note of a dotted rhythm as if it’s a triplet-ized eighth note


(2) Either rushing or dragging a tie

(3) “Over-dotting” a dotted rhythm that isn’t double-dotted because you’re over-correcting a three-against-four rhythmic pattern.

If this happens, don’t panic. Just practice slowly with the metronome, challenging yourself by practicing quadruple rhythms against a triplet-divided metronome beat, or the other way around. Once this is accomplished, you are now ready to wow your pianist—and the audience—with your preparation for the ensemble demands of this exciting sonata.