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.
The Violin Sonata in D Major is an arrangement by the composer himself of his own Flute and Piano Sonata, Op. 94. It was begun by Prokofiev in Alma-Ata in 1942 and completed one year later in Perm at the same time he was working on the ballet Cinderella. Prokofiev composed a very light and dreamy work for the flute, with endlessly upward-striving passages. The scherzo is reminiscent of a fast and impetuously whirlwind-like waltz, while in the third movement there are unexpected blues notes.
The sonata had a surprisingly happy destiny; in December 1943 it was premiered in Moscow by flautist Nikolai Kharkovsky and pianist Sviatoslav Richter, and in June 1944 David Oistrakh and Lev Oborin performed a version for two violins and piano (Op. 94 bis). Prior to that, Prokofiev and Oistrakh had converted the flute part into one for the violin, introducing a more free change of registers, dual notes and chords. The sonata was named the Second despite the fact that Prokofiev was then still working on the First Violin Sonata, which is completely different in terms of its character.
Eugène Ysaÿe’s six sonatas for solo violin, Op. 27 (1924), include the Third – less Bach-like and the most romantic. The sonata has the secondary title of “Ballade”. Unlike most of Ysaÿe’s other sonatas it is not split into movements and is performed “in one fell swoop” with a constantly increasing tempo. In the sonata there is nothing of the old, unhurried ballades. It opens with a slow episode “in the spirit of a recitative” written in a free rhythm and equally free atonality (the D Major comes later, in the fast and fantastical movement). From Bach, on whose works Ysaÿe based his violin solos, of course, there remains only the idea of performing numerous voices of any complexity on the violin; the “Ballade” concludes with an entire cascade of chords. Ysaÿe dedicated the sonata to the Romanian violinist and composer George Enescu.
César Franck’s Violin Sonata forms part of the triad of chamber ensembles produced by the composer in the last decade of his life along with a piano quintet and string quartet. All three works are acclaimed as dazzling examples of French chamber music.
Franck dedicated the score as a wedding present to its first performer Eugène Ysaÿe, a famous Belgian violinist. Franck’s sonata was not just one of Ysaÿe’s favourite works, performed until the end of his career, but also entered the repertoires of numerous celebrated violinists.
The four-part form of the cycle, which begins with a measured slow movement, brings to mind the structure of Bach’s sonatas. Turning to recitative (in the third movement) and polyphonic forms (the main theme of the finale is a canon) also makes us think of the principles of the Baroque era, though – of course – this sonata belongs to the late-Romantic style, by no means least because of the rich chromatic harmonies. The first musical idea of the sonata is in the colourful Major-key ninth chord, the sound of which Franck literally is in love with, not hastening to settle it in a steady assonance – he creates a link with Debussy’s yet-to-be-written searches in harmony.
In the sonata we have a vivid example of the principle of “cyclical themes” by which the cycle is linked by one motif that appears in every movement. Franck also made use of this principle in his symphony music. Here this element is provided by the intonation of the rising tercet that appears at the very start of the first part of the piano and then with the violin.
The violin, which stands apart throughout the sonata, was later transposed for various instruments including the flute. The arrangement for cello produced by French cellist Jules Delsart was approved by Franck himself. The natural sound of the sonata when performed on the cello allows us to see it as an equal partner to the original.