Music Notes for April 24, 2022



Sunday, April 24, 2022

Sonata for Violin and Piano in G Minor (1917)

  1. Allegro vivo
  2. Intermède, Fantasque et léger
  3. Finale: très animé
Claude Debussy
Sonata for Piano and Violin No. 10 in G Major, Op. 96 (1812)

  1. Allegro moderato
  2. Adagio espressivo
  3. Scherzo; Allegro
  4. Poco allegretto – Adagio espressivo – Tempo 1 – Allegro – Poco Adagio – Presto


Sonata for Violin and Piano in A Major (1886)

  1. Allegretto ben moderato
  2. Allegro
  3. Recitativo – Fantasia. Ben moderato – Molto lento – Molto lento e mesto
  4. Allegretto poco mosso
Cesar Franck

Program Notes

Claude Debussy Sonate pour violin et piano
Allegro vivo
Intermède, Fantasque et léger
Finale: très animé

In 1915 Debussy drafted a project for a series of six chamber works, all titled “sonatas”: the first was for cello and piano; the second, flute, viola and harp; the fourth and fifth for various wind and brass instruments with bass; and the sixth would culminate in a finale of sorts, using all the previous instruments together in a virtual chamber orchestra. Debussy was able to complete only the first three of these works before his death from cancer in 1918.

The Sonate pour violin et piano was composed during the Great War, a particularly difficult period for Debussy. Despite the sonata’s brevity, he struggled tremendously to complete it. Added on to his distress about the war, he was facing serious health and financial issues. In general, French Nationalism was extremely heightened during this period, exacerbated by their dislike of Germans, and Debussy was no exception; he always made it a point to differentiate himself and his music from that of the Germans, signing his compositions “musician Francais.” And this national pride was reflected in his music by looking back to the forms and values of the earlier French masters, Couperin and Rameau for form and inspiration.

The premiere of the Violin Sonata took place in Paris on May 5, 1917, with the composer playing the piano part and Gaston Poulet on the violin, as part of a fundraising concert for French soldiers. It was Debussy’s final public performance.

It is clear that In the violin sonata, his penultimate composition, Debussy’s musical concepts were headed in a new direction—away from the pictorial, “impressionistic” music that had driven his work for the previous 20 years, providing us with a glimpse of what purely abstract wonders the composer might have wrought had he lived longer.

Although the Sonate is imbued with deep melancholy, it is not without Debussy’s wonderful harmonic dexterity and sense of fantasy, and he employed non-traditional tonalities and chromaticism to infuse the music with new sounds and colors. Unlike the violin-piano duos of most of the 19th century, in the Debussy violin and piano sonata each instrument pulls against the counter melody of the other, rather than accompanying one another, creating a different kind of sonority and texture. They challenge each other but ultimately come together. The piano’s poignant opening chords immediately transport the listener into a subdued atmosphere enveloped in nostalgia and sadness. The movement is filled with rhythmic and harmonic ambiguities which fuel a growing momentum. In contrast, the middle movement, Fantasque et léger, is mostly light and capricious with a surprisingly melodious and sensuous second theme. Debussy actually completed the final movement four months before the previous two; it is a showcase of agility for t e performers, with running notes at tremolo-like speed on the piano, and the use of a four octave range on the violin.

Beethoven Sonata for Piano and Violin No. 10 in G Major, Op. 96 (1812)

Beethoven wrote nine of his ten sonatas for violin and piano during the period of 1797-1803, when he was in his late 20’s and early 30’s. Although this was still relatively early in his musical development, he essentially redefined the entire genre of the violin sonata over those seven years. After Beethoven, a violin sonata could have four movements instead of three; it could last ¾ of an hour rather than 15 minutes; and it could be challenging enough that no amateur could possibly play it. And most importantly, after Beethoven, a violin sonata could not be a piano sonata with an optional or secondary violin part—it had to be an equal collaboration between both players.

Despite his anguish at the onset of his deafness, Beethoven’s creative output between the mid- 1790’s and 1804 was remarkable, producing the first three symphonies, the first three piano concertos, the Triple Concerto, the Op. 18 Quartets, twenty-three of the thirty-two piano sonatas, nine of the ten violin sonatas as we, as a host of other piano pieces and chamber works.

Beethoven’s progress from the relatively small-scale sonatas of Op. 12 and the great “Kreutzer” sonata of 1803 was extraordinary even by his own standards. Five years at most lie between them. By the time he came to write his Op. 47 violin sonata, Beethoven had enlarged the genre to concerto-like proportions—indeed, in his sketch for the title page he alters the description of its style from “brilliante” to “molto concertante quasi come d’un Concerto” (almost like a concerto). The work was originally written for the young virtuoso violinist George Bridgetower, but re-dedicated to the celebrated violinist Kreutzer, who in fact never played the work.

Another seven years passed before Beethoven was to write another violin and piano sonata, this one, his tenth and last, Op. 96, composed for the French violinist Pierre Rode. Rode’s style of playing must have been very different from Bridgetower’s, since this sonata could hardly contrast more sharply with its predecessor; it is calm, intimate, and almost totally lacking in bravura. The beginning of the first movement sets the tone, with its dialogue between violin and piano growing out of a mere scrap of melody. This incandescent and lyrical movement is conceived upon surprisingly classical lines for the Beethoven of 1812, apart from a brief excursion into E-flat major just after the start of the recapitulation. E-flat is also the key of the deeply felt slow movement, which, as Nigel Fortune pointed out in The Beethoven Companion, foreshadows both Schumann and Brahms in its keyboard textures and subtleties of harmony.

The following movement, Scherzo in G minor, is characterized by sharp off-beat accents within a generally quiet dynamic level. The contrasting Trio, with its soaring melody, is once again in E­ flat major, and the little coda at the end is in G major.

The finale is a set of seven variations, based on a popular Viennese song, which digress considerably from the original melodic line while still remaining close to its underlying harmonic structure. Beethoven rounds out the final movement with an exuberant coda.

Cesar Franck Sonata for Violin and Piano in A Major (1886)

Cesar Franck’s Violin Sonata, written only four years before his death, is one of the finest chamber works to emerge in the closing decades of the 19th century. Franck wrote it as a wedding present for his friend and Belgian compatriot, the great violinist Eugene Ysaye, who gave the piece its first performance on December 16th, 1886. The work drew immediate attention and acclaim, and its undimmed popularity has subsequently prompted numerous transcriptions, including those for cello and flute.

Franck’s approach to classical structure was always flexible, as the three movement D minor Symphony readily demonstrates. Although the violin sonata is cast in four movements, the opening Allegro ben moderato resembles an extended prelude. It introduces, at first hesitantly, and then with growing confidence, the germ-cell out of which the entire work grows (the violinist’s first three notes), and is found in the opening theme of each successive movement. This prelude also establishes the work’s underlying A major tonality, significant because the ensuing Allegro, a movement of dramatic gestures and strong contrasts, is in D minor. Despite the title Recitative-Fantasia and its rhapsodic character, the musing third movement also largely adheres to classical procedure. The Allegretto poco mosso finale, for all its sunny disposition, is a masterly summation of what has gone before: both “cyclic” themes reappear, and the principal theme is reconstructed in canon form—nowhere is Franck’s sleight-of-hand more brilliant and defter. The piece ends with a highly exciting and robust coda, and the sonata as a whole stands as one of the most complete expressions of Franck’s musical personality.