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CÉSAR FRANCK (1822-1890)

Violin Sonata in A major, M. 8

November 15, 2015 – Jeremy Denk, piano; Stefan Jackiw, violin

César Franck, organist at St. Clothilde and professor of organ at the Paris Conservatory, influenced a generation of composers including d’Indy, Chausson, Duparc, and Vierne, yet was not prolific himself as a composer. He was a late achiever par excellence: he completed his only Symphony when he was sixty-six, and he composed his memorable chamber works, the Piano Quintet and Violin Sonata, just several years before, with the String Quartet closely following the Symphony. There is no telling what he might have achieved had he not died in 1890 at age sixty-seven.

Franck’s concern for thematic unity led to the use of what his disciple and enthusiastic champion Vincent d’Indy called the “cyclic” principle—the use of similar thematic material in two or more movements in the same work. D’Indy related Franck’s cyclic procedures to Beethoven, who may have been his inspiration, but Franck’s structural ideas have much more in common with those of Liszt and his practice of deriving an entire work from one musical idea.

The opening theme begins with a three-note “generating cell,” as d’Indy called it, that permeates the work. Almost immediately Franck shows his penchant for changing keys. As a teacher of organ, with composition mixed in, Franck grew uneasy when any student remained too long in one key—“Modulate, modulate!” he would urge, which was known to exasperate Debussy, who studied briefly in his class. Formally the first movement is based on this and another main theme that occurs only in piano interludes; the subjects alternate while passing through myriad keys. The presentation of the thematic material in this fashion and the lack of development give the movement the feel either of a prologue or of an inner movement. Originally Franck had conceived the movement in a slow tempo, but changed it to Allegretto after hearing it played by violin virtuoso Eugène Ysaÿe, to whom the work is dedicated.

Full-fledged sonata form is saved for the second movement, which employs a bit of the generating cell and also introduces another theme that will return in the finale. The brilliance of this Allegro movement contrasts nicely with the poetic first movement and with the rhapsodic third movement. This Recitativo-Fantasia sounds improvisatory at the outset as Franck ruminates upon the generating cell. The final Fantasia section is dominated by another theme that will reappear in the finale and ends with an unexpected harmonic turn. The finale is remarkable for the exact imitation between the violin and piano—one of the famous examples of canonic writing in the literature—which appears four times like a rondo refrain. The intervening episodes are based on the materials of the previous movements.

The Sonata was apparently given as a wedding present to Ysaÿe, who first performed it with pianist Léontine Bordes-Pène as the last work on an all-Franck concert at the Musée Moderne de Peinture in Brussels on December 16, 1886. D’Indy described that memorable late afternoon performance:

It was already growing dark as the Sonata began. After the first Allegretto, the players could hardly read their music. Unfortunately, museum regulations forbade any artificial light whatever in rooms containing paintings; the mere striking of a match would have been an offense. The audience was about to be asked to leave, but, brimful with enthusiasm, they refused to budge. At this point, Ysaÿe struck his music stand with his bow, demanding, “Let’s go on!” Then, wonder of wonders, amid darkness that now rendered them virtually invisible, the two artists played the last three movements from memory with a fire and passion the more astonishing in that there was a total lack of the usual visible externals that enhance a concert performance. Music, wondrous and alone, held sovereign sway in the blackness of night. The miracle will never be forgotten by those present.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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