Hungarian composer György Ligeti composed his Sonata for Solo Cello in two stages, in 1948 and 1953. He recalled in 1989: “The end of the war, and with it the Nazi dictatorship, released an unprecedented pent-up energy and vigor, which found expression in a suddenly flourishing artistic and intellectual life”. This freedom was short-lived; when Hungary became a Communist country in 1949 many artistic works were censored, including music by Bartók, Britten, Debussy, Ravel, Schoenberg and Stravinsky. Ligeti felt the absence of external precedent and kept his experimental scores private. He later wrote: “In 1951 I began to experiment with very simple structures of sonorities and rhythms as if to build up a new kind of music starting from nothing. My approach was frankly Cartesian, in that I regarded all the music I knew and loved as being, for my purpose, irrelevant and even invalid. I set myself such problems as: what can I do with a single note? with its octave? with an interval? with two intervals? What can I do with specific rhythmic interrelationships which could serve as the basic elements in a formation of rhythms and intervals? Several small pieces resulted, mostly for piano.”
Yet the Solo Sonata was not purely the result of musical experimentation; it had a more personal genesis. In 1948, towards the end of his studies, Ligeti found himself in love with a fellow student at the Budapest Music Academy, cellist Annuss Virány. Rather than telling her directly, he composed a piece called Dialogo for Virány, who remained none the wiser. In 1953 Ligeti was approached by the well-known cellist Vera Dénes, who requested a piece, so he added the virtuosic Capriccio to the Dialogo, which alternates pizzicato and legato phrases, to create a two-movement sonata.