Fauré: Sonata No. 1 in A major for Violin and Piano, Opus 13

“A magic floats above everything.” That’s what Camille Saint-Saëns had to say about the Violin Sonata No. 1 in A major by a young and more or less unknown Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924). During his time as professor at Paris’s École Niedermeyer, Saint-Saëns had been one of Fauré’s earliest boosters and mentors; he introduced his students to the then-newfangled creations of Schumann, Liszt, and Wagner and remained an unfailingly positive influence throughout Fauré’s lifetime. It was Saint-Saëns who helped the young composer snag the first few of his positions as church organist, a profession that provided him with a steady income but little inspiration. (Fauré never wrote a single solo work for the instrument, despite having been an organist for over forty years.)

Saint-Saëns did Fauré another fine service by introducing him to Pauline Viardot (1821-1910), one of the nineteenth century’s uncontested grand divas who was also an impressively well-rounded musician: composer, pianist, and teacher, in addition to her singing career. The well-connected Viardot, whose circle included Alfred de Musset, George Sand, Frédéric Chopin, and Ivan Turgenev, maintained a Paris salon legendary for high musical octane. Fauré became a Viardot regular as of the 1870s, and it was there that he met her son Paul, a superb violinist who, for a while, looked to become Fauré’s brother-in-law. (That didn’t work out.)

Paul Viardot is the dedicatee of the Violin Sonata No. 1, Fauré’s first important chamber work and to this day one of his most frequently performed and admired compositions. The piece had a rocky start, however. Fauré had trouble getting it published, and was eventually obliged to settle for a situation in which the publisher maintained the copyright and therefore took whatever royalties accrued. Even though the sonata had been a success at its 1877 premiere, it appears that the publishers were taken aback by its blend of ancient and modern; not only does it make use of the church modes of medieval and Renaissance music, it also evinces a neoclassical reserve that would have been alien to an era more accustomed to the big-boned statements of the Romantics.

The Fauré A major Sonata may well owe some of its relatively modernist tendencies to Wagner and Liszt, both fearless about stretching the limits of tonality and borrowing idioms from alternate musical sources. such broad-spectrum thinking was soon to become the norm in composers such as Debussy and Ravel, but as of the sonata’s 1877 premiere it was the Austro-Germanic idiom that prevailed; consider that Brahms introduced his epochal First Symphony in 1876, the same year that Richard Wagner opened the Bayreuth Festspielhaus with the first complete performance of Der Ring der Nibelungen.

The A major Sonata’s shimmering first movement dispenses with any introductory material and launches itself into a meticulous sonata-allegro form with aristocratic finesse. The introverted and reflective slow movement, in the dark key of D minor, invokes wisps of a languid waltz, or perhaps a sleepy barcarolle. In third place comes a downright scamper of a scherzo, fleet-footed and elfin, but with an ever-so melancholy mid-place trio. To conclude, Fauré offers a sweetly rippling rondo that somehow manages to be simultaneously virtuosic and restrained, a virtual musical handprint for this most quintessentially French of composers.—Scott Foglesong

Scott Foglesong is a Contributing Writer to the San Francisco Symphony program book.

(April 2019)