The Violin and Piano Sonata is one of Claude Debussy’s last works. At various times in his life he planned numerous violin works, though he completed very few, among them the Sonata on which he worked in 1916 – 1917. In September 1917 Debussy performed the Sonata in an ensemble together with Gaston Poulet. This premiere was his last public appearance.
The airy, weightless structure, the myriad flageolets in the violin part and the whimsical changes in tempo imbue the music with an ephemeral quality that is rarely to be found, even in works by impressionist composers. The three sections (Allegro vivo, Intermède and Finale) have no programme titles, although the music conjures up an entire kaleidoscope of associations with earlier programme works by Debussy, and a spectre from the fourth movement of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Schéhérazade hovers invisibly in the finale. But this time the composer preferred not to reveal the meaning and left the riddle without any clue. Perhaps because the contemporary painting that had inspired the composer from his young years had become abstract before his very eyes.
Igor Stravinsky’s Divertissement for Violin and Piano is an original arrangement of fragments from his allegorical ballet Le Baiser de la fée. The ballet was composed in the summer of 1928 following a commission from the ballerina Ida Rubinstein. The libretto was based on tales by Hans Christian Andersen. To a large degree, the music was based on themes from works by Tchaikovsky. The idea of a ballet in the style of Tchaikovsky belonged to Alexandre Benois, the artist who designed the production. Even the selection of romances and piano pieces used by Stravinsky was made by the artist.
The premiere of the ballet Le Baiser de la fée took place on 27 November 1928 at the Opéra de Paris and it was conducted by Stravinsky. And on 4 November 1934 he conducted the Paris premiere of his Divertissement for Orchestra, composed from highlights from the ballet. During this period, Stravinsky performed on stage a great deal, and he was in urgent need of a new concert repertoire. The Divertissement has four sections: Symphony, Swiss Dances, Scherzo and Pas de Deux. At the same time, still in 1934, Stravinsky reworked the Divertissement for Violin and Piano.
Ludwig van Beethoven’s Sonata for Violin and Piano No 9 in A Major, Op. 47, entered history under the title of the “Kreutzer Sonata”, in as much as the composer dedicated it to French violinist Rodolphe Kreutzer, of whose performing and human traits he had an extremely high opinion. The addressee, however, had no opinion whatever of Beethoven’s music, and never performed it once. The Sonata’s premiere in 1803 was exotic in nature: the piano part was performed by the composer himself and the violin by the then renowned virtuoso mulatto Bridgetower, the son of a Negro who claimed to be an Abyssinian prince.
Beethoven gave the work the sub-heading “in a very concert style” – he would have been fully justified in calling it “in symphonic style”, as the grandiose first section creates the impression of the movement of a symphony, turning the duo of performers into a breathtaking “one-on-one”, demanding all the resources of both instruments. The second part – an Andante with variations – is again a competition, albeit of an entirely different nature: the violin and the piano contend for supremacy over one another in subtlety and brilliance of drawing, in a light, soaring movement weaving together the delicate musical fabric. The finale of the Sonata is an impetuous tarantella, where there reigns a joyful mood, the spirit of dance and humour.
The popularity of the Kreutzer Sonata was aided by Tolstoy’s tale of the same name; here the writer calls the Andante “beautiful, though ordinary, not new”, the variations “vulgar” and the finale “utterly weak”. However, of the first section he wrote that “These things can be played only in famous, important and significant circumstances and only at a time when renowned, famous steps must be taken, which correspond to this music.” Later Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy changed his unflattering opinion of the second and third parts. From pianist Goldenweiser’s Talks with Tolstoy we know how the author lost his head on hearing the Sonata some years later after publication of his tale. Seemingly, he himself could hardly believe in that which he had once ascribed to this music.