Debussy: Sonata for Violin and Piano

(Booklet text of CD "Portrait Erik Reischl, Volume 3")

The Sonata for violin and piano is Debussy’s last work. It was written in 1917 and performed in Paris for the first time in May of the same year. Suffering from the symptoms of severe cancer the composer was prevented from finishing the cycle of sonatas in which each of the six sonatas was to include different combinations of musicians. Apart from the violin sonata Debussy was able to finish only the sonata for cello and piano and the sonata for flute, viola and harp.

In his composing, Debussy considered himself a "musicien français" (a French musician). During First World War this frame of mind was to assist in expressing national pride and to help differentiate between everything German (esp. the music of Richard Wagner). It was also intended to revive forms and values of the old French masters such as Rameau and Couperin.

Despite the emphasis on French traditions in Debussy’s late works, there are influences from other cultures and nations, mostly from Spanish and Asian music. Parts of the Sonata for violin and piano are most definitely coloured by gypsy music. The influence originates from Debussy’s meeting with a gypsy violinist in Budapest in 1910, where he had been conducting some of his own works. This experience left a considerable impression on him ("A man who could extract secrets from a safe.")

Nonetheless, the Sonata is a long way from bowing to salon music or even café-house music. Debussy uses single idioms of the violin technique, for example, the dragging of a tone upwards or downwards in order to give the piece the rhapsodic character which is in striking contrast to the formal severity of the sonata form.

The second movement, "Intermède. Fantasque et léger" is a strong reminder of the corresponding section in the cello sonata. Here, as well as in the cello sonata, are many ironic echos, the musical phrasing appears torn and unstable. After a short reemergence of the first movement’s initial theme, the finale continues into a virtuose and vibrant rondo theme which Debussy described as follows:

"Don’t trust any piece that appears to hover in flight from heaven - it could have been brooded in the dark depths of a sick man’s brain! For instance, the finale of my sonata: the simple play on a thought that twists itself like a snake biting its own tail..."

(Erik Reischl, Translation Elisabeth Ann Krüger)