It began as a grand plan for six sonatas “for various instruments,” with the final sonata featuring all of the instruments from the previous five. Claude Debussy (1862–1918) knew he didn’t have much time left. Diagnosed with colorectal cancer in 1909, he underwent a grueling operation in 1915 that left him severely weakened and barely able to compose. “For the last three months I’ve been able to work again,” he wrote in October 1915. “I spent nearly a year unable to write music after that I’ve almost had to re-learn it.”
Debussy died in 1918 with only three of the six sonatas completed—the first for cello and piano, the second for flute, viola, and harp, and the third for violin and piano, about which Debussy claimed, “I only wrote this sonata to be rid of the thing, spurred on by my dear publisher. This sonata will be interesting from a documentary point of view and as an example of what may be produced by a sick man in time of war.” That war had taken a sickening toll on France, with food shortages becoming common and concert life almost grinding to a halt. Given Debussy’s depression over the dire state of his homeland, combined with the severe pain caused by the cancer, it’s something of a miracle that the Violin Sonata radiates such an inner light and traffics more in joy than despair.
“The opening is so dreamy and full of promise,” says Anne-Sophie Mutter. “It’s so personal but you need a wonderful touch. Most of us spend a lifetime learning that.” The quietly grave chords of the introduction set the stage for a highly compressed sonata-form movement that resolutely shuns any overt virtuoso display in favor of intimate expressiveness characterized by lamenting figures in the violin and restrained, mostly chordal, writing in the piano.
If the first movement belongs largely to the violin, the second-place Intermède belongs to both instruments equally. Graceful yet constantly changeable, the movement comes off almost as an improvisation—if such a thing were possible in such a carefully controlled manner. Occasional flashes of quasi-Stravinskian rhythmic energy aside, the Intermède exists in an amorphous space, somewhere between scherzo and gentle andante, never settling into an easily-defined affect until its ending, almost Mendelssohnian in its serenely chaste G major harmony.
The Finale opens with a reference to the first movement before propelling itself into a joyous gigue-like dance that evokes those extroverted romps of Debussy’s earlier years, such as Printemps. Languidly erotic contrasting episodes remind us that this is indeed late-period Debussy with all its contradictions and mysteries, but good spirits and energy prevail: the ending is breezily optimistic as one could wish.—Scott Foglesong
Scott Foglesong is a Contributing Writer to the San Francisco Symphony program book.
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