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The Cello Sonatas of Jean-Baptiste Bréval

J-B Bréval

Jean-Baptiste Sebastien Bréval (6 November 1753 – 18 March 1823) was a French cellist and composer perhaps best known for his cello sonatas, particularly C Major (Op. 40, No. 1) and G Major (Op. 12, No. 5).

Sonatas with a Second Cello Part

Bréval was one of the last students of cellist and composer Martin Berteau (2 February 1691 – 22 January 1771). He continued Berteau’s tradition of composing sonatas for cello with bass accompaniment. Both composers expected the bass part to be played by a second cello, very likely by the cello teacher.

Traité du violoncelle

Many cellists now choose to have Berteau’s unfigured bass part realized by a harpsichord. However, the two-cello layout was common in the late Classical era, especially in method books. In Bréval’s own Traité du violoncelle, he states that the bass and the cello are one and the same. Other composers who used this method include Bernhard Romberg and Justus Johann Friedrich Dotzauer. Romberg and Dotzauer composed sonatas for cello and basso (second cello) accompaniment as well; examples are Op. 43 and Op. 103, respectively.

Pedagogical Value of the Sonatas

Bréval composed his Cello Sonatas circa the 1780s. While I do not believe he planned this progression, they make a continuum of sonatas according to difficulty as follows:


  • Op. 12 – picking up where Op. 28, No. 6 leaves off

In addition to the increasing technical difficulty, you can also see the individual sonatas grow longer in each set:

  • Op. 40 sonatas all consist of two moderate-to-fast tempo movements
  • Op. 28, Nos. 1-4 are still in two movements, but Nos. 5-6 consist of three movements, with the addition of a middle, slow movement
  • Op. 12 sonatas all consist of three movements

Breval 6 Sonatas for Cello Op.12

A Brief Overview of the Op. 12 Sonatas

The key centers of Op. 12 are almost identical to the other two opuses. Op. 12 sonata keys are in the following order: C, F, G minor, A, G, D. Compare these to:

  • Op.40: C, F, G, B-flat, A, D
  • Op. 28: D, C, A, G, B-flat, F

The movements of the Op. 12 Sonatas are as follows:

  1. First movements: Allegro movement in sonata form (Exception: Sonata No. 5 is marked “Brillante” instead of Allegro)
  2. Second (slow) movements vary as follows:
    • Form
      1. Rondo (Nos. 1 and 4)
      2. Rounded binary (Nos. 2 and 3)
      3. Simple binary (Nos. 5 and 6)
    • Each has a place where the student can learn to improvise a cadenza
    • Some have a descriptive title such as “Aria,” “Siciliana,” and “Romance,” while others are simply marked “Adagio.”
  3. Third movements vary as follows:
    • Rondo (Nos. 1, 4, 5, and 6)
      1. No. 1’s finale is marked “Tempo di minuetto”
      2. Others are marked “Rondo” without another tempo marking
    • Sonata form (Nos. 2 and 3) – marked “Presto”

The Classical 4th Finger in Thumb Position

Since all the Op. 12 sonatas use thumb position to a great extent, I find it best to stay within the framework of Classical-era cello fingering conventions. In other words, I prefer to stay in thumb position as long as possible and to use the fourth finger in thumb position. This fingering philosophy may help cellists tackle similar passages in concertos by Haydn, Boccherini, Danzi, Romberg, and, of course, Bréval.

A Modern Edition That’s Easier to Read

My new edition contains a faithful reproduction of Richomme’s (c.1783) version with a few changes noted by brackets and footnotes. To make the parts easier to read, I translated the original treble clef, which was to be played down an octave, into tenor clef. The cello part comes in an unmarked (Urtext) and a marked copy.

This edition is available to purchase here.

Related Editions

Your Turn

How many of Bréval’s sonatas have you played? Which is your favorite? Do you prefer the 2-cello version or a version with keyboard accompaniment? Please tell us in the comments.

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