Kodály's Sonata for solo cello of 1915 is perhaps the first major work for unaccompanied cello after Bach's six great suites of almost 200 years earlier. The sonata, in three movements totaling about half an hour, synthesizes many of the musical interests Kodály was exploring at this early time in his career. Since becoming a professor of composition at Budapest's Royal Academy of Music in 1908, most of his compositions had been chamber works for strings; the Cello Sonata is perhaps the most ambitious of the early string works. The sonata exhibits Kodály's interest in the music of Claude Debussy, which he had encountered while studying in Paris a couple of years before. Hints of the style of Béla Bartók, Kodály's good friend, can likewise be discerned. The sounds and inflections of Hungarian folk music also play a prominent role; Kodály was passionately interested in the folk music of his native land and several years earlier had started taking regular trips around the country, many with Bartók, collecting, recording, and transcribing folk songs and dances.
Kodály was declared unfit for military service in World War I; during those years he worked with a volunteer group put in charge of defending the chief monuments in Budapest, while continuing his studies in Hungarian folk music and composing. Due to the war, the sonata, once completed, had to wait three years for its first performance. The cellist to whom the sonata is dedicated, Jenö Kerpely, gave that premiere in Budapest on May 7, 1918.
The sonata begins with a very serious-minded Allegro maestoso ma appassionato, featuring big gestures and alternating between anger and acquiescence. The second movement, Adagio con grand' espressione, begins with a dark, meandering melodic line accompanied by occasional resonant pizzicati. After a much more aggressive central section, the music slows again and works its way to a spare and haunting conclusion. With the third movement, Allegro molto vivace, the listener is plunged into the world of Hungarian folk music. This headlong, vigorous, and diverse movement is full of virtuoso passages featuring pizzicati, double stops, and fast repeated notes and runs, and makes for an exciting conclusion.
In a 1921 article titled "The New Music of Hungary," Béla Bartók wrote of this sonata: "No other composer has written music that is at all similar to this type of work... Here Kodály is expressing, with the simplest possible technical means, ideas that are completely original. It is precisely the complexity of the problem that offered him the opportunity of creating an original and unusual style, with its surprising effects of vocal type; though quite apart from these effects the musical value of the work is brilliantly apparent."