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French Violin Sonatas
Another real winner
By Brian Higgins
The playing and recording are fine.
French Violin Sonatas
Claude Debussy (1862-1918): Violin Sonata
Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921): Violin Sonata No. 1 in D minor, Op. 75
Maurice Ravel (1875-1937): Violin Sonata
Francis Poulenc (1899-1963): Violin Sonata
French acceptance of the violin as a serious
instrument was relatively late. Louis XIII established his famous court
orchestra, the 24 Violins of the King, in 1626, but the musical demands made on
the players seem to have been limited, their duties being principally to
provide dance music. The Italian dancer, violinist and composer Lully, the
creator of French opera and of the French opera orchestra, changed matters, but
it was left to the composer-violinists of the eighteenth century to establish,
under Italian influence, the full pre-eminence of the violin in French music
and to develop a school of violin-playing of great importance.
Debussy's Violin Sonata was the third of a projected set of six sonatas that
the composer began in 1915, at a time when the cancer that was to cause his
death in 1918, was already severe, adding to the anxieties of the war. The completed
sonatas, for cello and piano and for flute, viola and harp, were attributed
on the title-pages to Claude Debussy, musicien français. The sonata opens
with a movement in which a new range of sonorities is delicately exploited between
the two instruments. The second movement provides an example of French ornamental
orientalism and is followed by a final movement that recalls the first.
Debussy had little good to say of Saint-Saëns, and the latter had still less
time for Debussy, whom he outlived by three years, although he was 27 years
his senior. Of the new music Saint-Saëns claimed that, while one could get used
to anything, there were some things one should simply not get used to and Debussy,
by implication, was one of them. He exercised his wit on the innovative L'après-midi
d'un faune -
Je deviendrais vite aphone,
si j'allais en étourdi
m'egosiller comme un faune
fetant son après-midi.
(I'd soon lose my voice, if I went round
witlessly bawling like a faun celebrating his afternoon).
Of the four violin sonatas included here, the earliest, by Camille Saint-Saëns,
was written in 1885, to be followed by a second sonata eleven years later, Saint-Saëns,
once known as the French Mendelssohn, was a remarkably versatile composer and
an enthusiastic supporter of modern trends in music in his younger days. By
the time of his death in 1921 he had outlived both Debussy and his own reputation,
to be identified by younger musicians as an extreme conservative and by some
as the composer of bad music, well written. He was, nevertheless, an important
composer in himself and a potent influence on his pupil Gabriel Fauré and hence
on Fauré's own pupil, Ravel.
The first of the two violin sonatas of Saint-Saëns came at a time when the
composer was at the height of his powers, the period of the famous Organ
Symphony, and a work that he himself deprecated as trivial and ephemeral,
the popular Carnival of the Animals. The D minor Violin Sonata has the
composer's usual clarity of texture and sureness of technique, and makes considerable
technical demands on a violinist, particularly in its brilliant conclusion.
The violin writing might remind a listener that Saint-Saëns had already written
his famous Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso and his three
Maurice Ravel had still less time for Saint-Saëns. In a letter written in
1916 he remarks that Saint-Saëns has informed a delighted public that since
the beginning of the war he had composed music for the stage, songs, an elegy
and a trombone piece. If he'd been making cases for shells instead it might
have been all the better for music. Ravel's relationship with Debussy was not
of the easiest, owing rather to the claims of mutual influence put forward by
their friends and supporters, rather than to any personal animosity between
Ravel's Violin Sonata was completed in 1927, after occupying the composer
intermittently for some five years, and reflects in some ways the fashions of
the time, particularly in its second movement 'Blues'. Its first movement is
in an instantly recognisable idiom, and the final virtuoso 'Perpetuum mobile'
opens with a briefly hesitant reference to the first movement and contains passing
jazz references underlying music of considerable panache.
Francis Poulenc brought musical distinction to a name already well enough
known in the world of pharmaceuticals. His Violin Sonata was completed in 1943,
at a time when the composer spent the greater part of his time in Paris, confining
his concert activities exclusively to French repertoire during the days of the
German occupation. The work, which followed two earlier violin sonatas destroyed
by the composer, was written in memory of the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca,
a victim of the Civil War in Spain, and was first performed in Paris by the
composer with the violinist Ginette Neveu. After her death at the age of thirty
in a plane crash in 1949, Poulenc revised the last movement.
Claiming to be no harmonic innovator, as Debussy and Ravel had been, Poulenc
held, reasonably enough, that there was plenty of room for new music using other
people's chords. This he achieved eclectically in the sonata, which opens with
exciting drama, moving to a more lyrical second theme, and making, in passing,
witty reference to composers of a more distant past. After the respite of the
central Intermezzo there is a final movement leading to catastrophe in a brief
passage for followed by bitter mourning, the violinist's last short interjection
one of apparent triumph over the tragedy of early death.
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French Violin Sonatas