Saint-Saëns: Sonata No. 1 in D minor for Violin and Piano, Opus 75
“He knows everything, but lacks inexperience.” That’s the Oscar Wilde of music criticism Hector Berlioz, ever handy with the pithy put-down. His victim was Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921), who after a start as a dazzling child prodigy during Mendelssohn’s heyday sustained a lengthy career capped off by golden years as a revered master whose students included Maurice Ravel and Gabriel Fauré. Berlioz’s snipe was a reflection of the common charge that the deeply conservative Saint-Saëns tended to elevate technique over inspiration. (Certainly nobody would ever say that about Berlioz.) It’s true enough that much of his compositional output has faded, but those works that have stayed the course have remained audience favorites and repertory standards: Carnival of the Animals; the Third Symphony, Organ; several of the piano concertos; a violin concerto; Danse macabre, Samson et Dalila. And there’s the Violin Sonata No. 1 in D minor, Opus 75, a dazzling showcase for both violin and piano that has taken its rightful place among the worthies of late Romantic chamber music.
The piece got off to a rocky start, however. Its supercharged propulsiveness and ferocious technical demands got the better of many of its early performers—a feature it shares with its spiritual ancestor, Beethoven’s Opus 47, Kreutzer Violin Sonata, rejected for performance by its namesake Rodolphe Kreutzer. But just as the Kreutzer Sonata found its performers, thus the Saint-Saëns D minor: dedicatée Martin Marsick was initially flummoxed by the finale’s shattering difficulties but rallied sufficiently to give the work a worthy 1885 premiere, with the über-virtuoso Saint-Saëns himself on the piano. Performing the sonata is no casual undertaking, but the piece is most indubitably playable, provided the performers have the technical wherewithal to meet its daunting requirements.
Whether it’s a two- or four-movement sonata is a matter of interpretation. The first and second movements form one nonstop unit; the third and fourth movements ditto. Befitting the craftsmanship for which Saint-Saëns is celebrated, the sonata makes careful use of a limited number of themes, each incorporated, disassembled, reassembled, and reprised throughout. The unsettled first movement lives up to its Allegro agitato marking with its short themes and frequent outbursts, but a reserved secondary theme in longer notes (against beautiful ripples in the piano) will make a triumphant return in the finale as the climax of the entire sonata. (Nota bene: Marcel Proust claimed this movement, and that secondary theme, to have provided the model for Vinteuil’s sonata in Swann’s Way.)
The second-place Adagio movement—it follows the first without a break—might appear to have stepped out of a work by Gabriel Fauré, with its ethereal quality and shimmering blanket of fragrant harmonies, although a distinctly more robust middle section points clearly to Saint-Saëns in its etched classicism and harmonic poise. The second half of the sonata opens with an Allegretto moderato scherzo that trips the light fantastic in a quick triple meter, almost Mendelssohnian in its grace, ending in a chorale-like passage that provides a moment of repose before the forthcoming torrent.
That torrent, Allegro molto, stands as one of the supreme finger-benders in the literature for both instruments. From time to time the pyrotechnics cool off by a few degrees, but soon enough it all heats up again, eventually culminating in several pages of ear-melting splendor as the two instruments sizzle through uninterrupted moto perpetuo scales and arpeggios in lightspeed unisons, ending in a conflagration of octaves in the piano with superheated eruptions in the violin. —Scott Foglesong
Scott Foglesong is a Contributing Writer to the San Francisco Symphony program book.