Violin Sonata in G minor, L. 140 and
Cello Sonata in D minor, L. 135
March 13, 2022: Kristin Lee, violin; Nicholas Canellakis, cello; Michael Brown, piano
Toward the end of his life Debussy set himself the goal of writing six sonatas for diverse instruments, but he was able to complete only three before succumbing to colon cancer. The devastation in Paris caused by World War I and his declining health had left him unable to compose for almost a year, but he was roused to take up the pen again in the summer of 1915 by a surge of patriotism and by a change of scenery to Dieppe. He completed his Cello Sonata and the Sonata for flute, viola, and harp before returning to Paris that October, and, after another bout with his illness, the Violin Sonata in 1916–17. He dedicated these remarkable works, along with the three he planned to write, “en hommage à Emma-Claude Debussy (p.m.)”—the parenthetical initials standing for “petite mienne” (my little one), his pet name for his second wife.
With immense, tortured effort, and several revisions of the finale, he was able to finish the Violin Sonata by the end of March 1917. It was the last composition he completed. He gave the first performance with violinist Gaston Poulet on May 5, 1917, at the Salle Gaveau, and with repeat performances in Saint-Jean-de-Luz and Biarritz he bid farewell to the concert stage.
Debussy’s published title pages for each of the three Sonatas identified him as “musicien français,” by which he proudly showed his patriotism in time of war, but also his often declared determination to put forth a national French style as great as that of his Baroque forbears Couperin and Rameau. In May 1917 Debussy expressed great satisfaction with his Violin Sonata writing to his friend Robert Godet, “In keeping with the contradictory spirit of human nature it is full of a joyous tumult.” Yet only one month later, writing in a depressed state to Godet, he condemned the Sonata:
You should know, my too trusting friend, that I only wrote this Sonata to be rid of the thing, spurred on as I was by my dear publisher. You, who are able to read between the staves, will see traces of Imp of the Perverse [story by Edgar Allan Poe] who encourages one to choose the very subject which should be ignored. This Sonata will be interesting from a documentary viewpoint and as an example of what may be produced by a sick man in time of war.
Godet firmly challenged his deprecatory remarks saying, “One would be justified in criticizing it if it were not true music; which it undoubtedly is, and in a delightful way.” Nevertheless, Debussy’s dejected criticisms contributed to some harsh evaluations of the work, which happily have been ignored by thousands of violin and piano duos who have enthusiastically embraced this unique contribution from the composer’s late period.
A lyrical, melancholy opening belies the first movement’s designation Allegro vivo, but its rhapsodic utterances in the first section erupt into lively passages. The quiet second group of themes is especially memorable for a sultry violin melody replete with glissandos (slides) and syncopated chordal accompaniment; a brief throaty folkish tune, alternating with a high violin melody (first in harmonics) with rippling piano accompaniment; and a slightly exotic tune with more glissandos. Following a return of opening materials, a frenzied buildup leads to a grand Gypsylike improvisation over repeated chords and an abrupt end.
The capricious opening of the second movement reminds us of the commedia dell’arte figure of the Harlequin/Pierrot, which runs like a thread through all three late Sonatas—the earlier Cello Sonata was in fact once called Pierrot fâche avec la lune (Pierrot angered at the moon). In the present movement, which is to be played “with fantasy and lightness,” the motives and textures change with utmost flexibility. In contrast to the many delightful quicksilver gestures Debussy also offers an intriguing passage in which the haunting melody is doubled two octaves apart, accompanied all the while by insistent repeated treble chords.
Emerging from an agitated piano opening, the violin’s first utterance in the Finale quotes the main theme of the first movement. Debussy colorfully noted the cyclic nature of this theme, saying that it “ultimately leaves the impression of an idea turning back upon itself, like a snake biting its own tail.” Improvisatory-sounding passages liven up the proceedings and again we hear a succession of variegated ideas, both fast and slow. One slow passage begins with a ringing low tone in the piano and a seductive violin melody again with glissandos. Several times his repeated-note accompaniment gives the impression of Spanish guitar figuration. A fascinating section near the end has the violin playing a high repeating pattern while the piano plays the melody in single notes, the whole interrupted twice with brilliant flourishes. A final wind-up produces wild trills in the violin, bold descending octaves in the piano, and one last impudent gesture.
Debussy wrote to his publisher on August 5, 1915, that he was pleased with the “proportions and almost classical form in the best sense of the word” of his Cello Sonata, adding later that cellists had been asking him to add such a work to their scant repertoire for a long time. The first performance took place not in Paris, as is often claimed, but in London, by cellist C. Warwick Evans and pianist Madame Alfred Hobday on March 4, 1916. Another performance followed five days later in Geneva by Léonce Allard and Marie Panthès. The Parisian performance often cited as the premiere did not take place until March 24, 1917, played by Joseph Salmon with Debussy himself at the piano.
One of the work’s early performers, Louis Rosoor, printed the following in his programs, claiming to have gotten the description directly from the composer: “Pierrot [Harlequin] wakes up with a start and shakes off his stupor. He rushes off to sing a serenade to his beloved [the moon] who, despite his supplications, remains unmoved.” Debussy, however, complained bitterly to his publisher that the cellist had abused his confidence and it was no wonder his poor music was “so frequently misunderstood.” His protestations ultimately have the effect of corroborating Rosoor’s claim, suggesting that, as with many of the programmatic superscripts he attached to his works, the description did have some bearing on the piece, but that it was not only unnecessary for understanding the piece but might be misinterpreted.
Our “musicien français” actually invoked the world of Couperin and Rameau in his Cello Sonata, which, despite his mention of “classical” forms, contains no sonata-form movement. The Prologue, in fact, alternates slow regal music reminiscent of the Baroque French-overture style with prelude-like improvisatory-sounding passages. The harmonies, however, are all Debussy’s.
The Sérénade begins as if Pierrot (Harlequin) is tiptoeing to his beloved Colombine’s window. The cello’s constant pizzicato and periodic strumming seem to depict his guitar but also his antics. Debussy also calls for high harmonics, which give the cello a flutelike sound. Without pause the virtuoso finale takes off in a rush of figuration for the piano and a cello line whose sustained notes erupt into a folklike melody. Occasionally Debussy pauses the forward momentum for reflective, slightly exotic (Spanish-influenced?) passages and one particularly slow, soulful interlude, which make the surrounding activity sound that much more dizzying. An emphatic cello recitative and some forceful chords round off the piece.
© Jane Vial Jaffe