Sonata, G, Violin and Piano (1917)

Born 22 August 1862, Saint Germain-en-Laye, France.
Died 25 March 1918, Paris, France.

When a radical composer experiments with musical language, this has to include all organizational factors, those we call form.  Debussy found traditional methods of statement and development that he studied in the Paris Conservatoire to be unsatisfactory and/or unworkable for his own work. Much of his early music substitutes a method of presenting material in a vague, uncertain manner and then gradually clarifying its meaning and purpose. Instead of the old expository form, this could be best termed a “revelation process” and its best example must of course be the Prelude à l’après-midi d’un faune, the opening flute theme of which attains three dimensions step by step as the piece unfolds. In Debussy’s middle-period work, a kind of streaming-of-consciousness surfaces, particularly in the songs and in La Mer, where nothing repeats literally, and where the pictorial function of an idea seems less important than its sense of being a link within a chain in which we get to isolate neither the beginning nor the end. Just prior to World War I, Debussy began to combine these methods into a complex fantasy of overlapping nuances to overwhelm the listener, the very best examples being the XII Etudes for piano solo, though the Rhapsodies featuring clarinet or saxophone also demonstrate this notion forcefully. In all this music, Debussy demonstrated his independence from the musico-academic world of the theme-and-variations, rondo, and sonata-allegro forms.

Then, during the War-to-end-all-wars, Debussy suddenly embarked on a set of six pieces all called “Sonatas.” This sudden apparent about-face has mystified everyone ever since! He only completed the first three of these before his death: 1) for violoncello and pianoforte; 2) for flute, viola and harp; and 3) for violin and piano. We do know that he planned the others to form a kind of great unity in which the fourth would introduce oboe, horn and harpsichord; the fifth would bring on clarinet, bassoon and trumpet, as well as employ the piano once more; and the sixth would combine all the instruments of the first five with a double bass! It almost seems that he attempted to build up a particular chamber orchestra out of its component parts; what a strange concert would have resulted from the performance of these six sonatas one after another. The relative brevity of each movement of the three surviving pieces in this set makes such a possible performance of the whole cycle plausible. Perhaps, if we could hear this putatively cyclic work as a whole, the mystery of each of its component parts would, at least in part, resolve itself.

Debussy worked very hard on the three completed pieces, revising each one many times. The violin sonata occupied him incessantly throughout the winter of 1916-1917, and he performed it himself, with the violinist Gaston Poulet, on 5 May 1917, the last time he ever appeared on stage, and one of the last times he could safely appear in public, before the confinement of his final illness. Just after the performance, he expressed dissatisfaction with the last of the Sonata’s three movements, but he does not seem to have been well enough to undertake a further revision. The version we now play seems to be identical to that essayed by Poulet and the composer. All his life, Debussy allowed pieces to be performed and published even though he had not attained total confidence in every note; he usually needed money more than aesthetic satisfaction, and in this regard he most greatly differed from Duparc and Ravel, and most resembled Fauré.

In none of the three sonatas, most especially in the Violin Sonata, does he resuscitate classical forms; one cannot find a sonata-allegro or rondo in any of its movements. One wonders why e then called each by that name. Many previous writers speculate that the title merely means an instrumental piece as contrasted with a vocal piece, a sonata instead of a cantata, a return to the original 17th-century usage of the term. We should merely understand the title to indicate a piece without a particular pictorial representation – a purely musical work. In this way, these writers assert that the term acts in exactly the same manner as the word “Untitled” on an abstract painting. This has never seemed to be enough for me, since so much of the musical fabric of these works, especially the Sonata for Violin and Piano, greatly differs from anything he had composed before.

What seems new for Debussy includes several factors, each of which depends to some degree upon the others: 1) a strong sense of beginning and end to each movement, far more articulated than in his previous work; 2) a clarity and straightforwardness of presentation without his usual impressionistic mist; 3) a cyclic use of motivic material from one movement in another; 4) a use of each instrument in a manner clearly distinct from the other, with very little need to blend them or make their sounds merge, as in every instrumental work composed since his Printemps of 1888; 5) an evocation of the modality he had employed almost exclusively in work referring to Classic Greek culture; 6) a very slow pace of harmonic rhythm recalling portions of Pelléas et Mélisande, though with a vastly different effect; 7) a systematic use of musical techniques that had only sporadically appeared in previous work – in this sonata, the notable ones being hemiola and portamentos; and finally 8) every movement ends precipitously, almost before the listener expects it to end – and all final cadences avoid clichés so startlingly that the listener cannot always be sure the movement has truly ended. All of these factors make this music sound much like a denial of the sound-ideal of all his prior achievement, a much more striking result than previous writers have advanced.

As in the preponderance of his life’s work, the dynamic level of this sonata tends to stay on the soft side, so as to best bring out the nuances that have always been Debussy’s musico-aesthetic life blood. In each and every movement, he makes the listener lean forward to catch some wisp of melody, chord, motive or tonal pirouette before it disappears into the void. A sudden rare outburst of passion, and at least one takes place in each movement, attains great power in this context. Many turns of phrase in this sonata Debussy scholars recognize in his earliest work; the combination of all this creates an effect of novelty of purpose that resists exegesis or description.

Is Debussy practicing concision and/or restraint to make up for past excesses, both musical and personal? Can he be crying for lost romanticism in this new cruel, ugly, mechanistic century? Can he be asserting his independence from Beethoven, Brahms and other German models, as made manifest by his placement next to his name on the title page of musicien français? Does he attempt here to bring forth a statement combining ideas from all periods of his life’s work in some sort of overall valedictory? Has he felt the need here to assert his version of the neoclassicism that other composers now began to employ, a style that would come to dominate much of the post-war musical world?

I have never been able to answer any of these questions definitely, and neither has any other Debussy scholar. Nobody can thus far explain why, in a musical world in which interpreters must play the music as written, this Sonata, as much as any work, sounds enormously different from performance to performance. One need only listen to the 1940 recording of it made by violinist Josef Szigeti accompanied by pianist Béla Bartók to hear the vastness of the range duettists can fill. As wonderful as this reading sounds, it can in no way be held superior to so many other renditions of the work.

Several studies of these works exist, but none successfully deals with these unsolved mysteries. Perhaps the next generation will find the answer; ours may be exhausted from proving Fermat’s last theorem. All in all, however, the public has loved this sonata from the very first. People might not fully feel nor understand its purpose, but its attractiveness has now drawn applause from four generations of otherwise fussy listeners, and this accomplishment may be the most mysterious element of all.

Joel Sheveloff