By Brian Wise
Claude Debussy, battling late-stage cancer and faced with the growing hardships of World War I, had only a few self-deprecating words about his swan song, the Sonata for Violin and Piano in G minor. “I only wrote this sonata to be rid of the thing, spurred on by my dear publisher,” he wrote to a colleague in June 1917. “This sonata will be interesting from a documentary point of view and as an example of what may be produced by a sick man in time of war.”
Composers’ deathbed works often carry an aura of gravitas and poignancy—be it Mozart’s Requiem, Schubert’s Die Winterreise, or Berg’s Violin Concerto—but Debussy’s correspondence suggests that the sonata was less poetic than a dispiriting grind. Later biographers and critics perhaps didn’t help its reputation: Edward Lockspeiser’s two-volume biography deemed it “an illuminating failure” while critic Paul Griffiths, in a 2001 New York Times review, called it “disappointingly retrograde.”
“The opening is so dreamy and full of promise. It’s so personal but you need a wonderful touch. Most of us spend a lifetime learning that.”
But over the past century, violinists have come to embrace Debussy’s compact and exquisitely autumnal Violin Sonata—if partly out of gratitude to the French composer for devoting his fading energies to a solo instrument that he largely passed by earlier in life. In 2018, the centennial year of Debussy’s death, the sonata seems primed for a fresh appraisal.
“It’s such a wonderful example of French music,” says Anne-Sophie Mutter, who recorded the piece in 1995, and this year plans to return it to her recital programs. “It’s so different. The sonata is just an incredible example of sound colors, of delicacy, and subtlety of tonal development.”
French violinist Renaud Capuçon calls the sonata “one of those pieces where you recognize the composer after a few bars.” He features the piece on a new Debussy chamber-music recording with pianist Bertrand Chamayou. “His sense of melody, his sense of harmonies, and his way of being very compact is quite clear.”
At roughly one-third the length of Beethoven’s “Kreutzer” Sonata, and half as long as major sonatas by Brahms and Franck, Debussy’s three-movement Violin Sonata is indeed tightly wound, and rewards meticulous interpreters who are attuned to its precise markings, French stylistic nuances, and sprinkling of folk influences. Mutter stresses its atmospheric qualities.
“It’s one of the most difficult pieces to play,” says Mutter, “maybe not technically, in terms of speed and double-stops and jumps and all of that. But for me, it’s really about grasping the intention of the composer. You really need to practice pianissimos. The opening is so dreamy and full of promise. It’s so personal but you need a wonderful touch. Most of us spend a lifetime learning that.”
Both violinists and listeners may benefit from understanding why Debussy took up the ultra-traditional sonata form after two decades of experimentalism. Encouraged by his publisher, Jacques Durand, Debussy planned to write a cycle of six sonatas for various instruments, but only three were completed before he died on March 25, 1918 (also completed were a Cello Sonata and the enchanting Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp).
Prior to 1914, Debussy often extolled music that seemed to be floating in free space, and held little regard for academic models. But as Marianne Wheeldon writes in Debussy’s Late Style, many European composers began reigning in their revolutionary impulses with the outbreak of the war. Debussy was also careful to distinguish his approach to the sonata from the Austro-Germanic tradition. He tcited French Baroque composers François Couperin and Jean-Philippe Rameau as influences, and added a patriotic inscription to the title page: “Claude Debussy—Musicien Français.”
“Given the very real destruction taking place across Europe,” writes Wheeldon, “[Debussy] sought to attach himself to a French musical heritage, as the total demolition of traditions now seemed wholly inappropriate.”
The sonata was no abstract exercise in patriotism. The bleak Parisian winter of 1917 had brought shortages of food and coal, and an escalation in their cost. With concert life slowing down, commissions dwindled. It had also been more than six years since Debussy’s cancer diagnosis and the illness and treatments now sapped his energy. The premiere of the Violin Sonata took place in Paris on May 5, 1917, with the composer accompanying Gaston Poulet, as part of a fundraising concert for French soldiers. It was Debussy’s final public performance.
“He was in a huge pain fighting cancer,” says the English violinist Tamsin Waley-Cohen. “It’s amazing that the sonata is so full of light and beauty and it has these incredible moments of sensuality and joy. It ends on such an upbeat note.”
Waley-Cohen recorded the sonata in 2014 alongside works by Ottorino Respighi, Jean Sibelius, and Edward Elgar, which were all composed in 1917. “There’s a mix of darkness and light in the sonata,” she says of Debussy’s score. “You can see this dichotomy in the opening four bars. The very first opening chords have a bitonality and the violin plays falling minor thirds that are very ambiguous. It’s almost there but just out of reach.”
To Canadian violinist James Ehnes, “there’s a certain amount of code-cracking that needs to go on with learning the piece and digesting the language.” Ehnes has recorded the sonata twice, most recently in 2016. “What makes the piece challenging and very interesting are the subtleties in notation.” A biting staccato passage may return later marked tenuto, he noted, or a piano phrase will return marked pianissimo. “All of these subtle but important differences require a lot of control. He might be looking for nine different kinds of soft in 12 bars.”
Also not to be overlooked are the sonata’s cultural influences. Spanish allusions turn up in the first movement, as when the violinist languidly hovers on a G flat, teasingly avoiding the tonic. The short glissandos in the second and third movements suggest the influence of gypsy violinist Béla Radics, whose playing Debussy once heard in a Budapest nightclub. The finale, with its scampering runs, trills, and triple meter, has shades of an Italian Tarantella.
“He was just a musician that wanted to discover the folklore and the folk music of all people, and he had a curiosity about that from an early age,” says Scottish violinist Nicola Benedetti. “My memory of trying to interpret Debussy was: How can I sound as far away from a normal violin player as possible? I later learned more about Debussy’s influences and how he looked outside of his culture, and not just European culture but absolutely worldwide.”
Benedetti adds that some of these novel sounds turn up in the piano accompaniment, with its dreamy arpeggios and vivid interaction with the violinist.
The way in which Debussy bundled these non-Western influences with a distinctly French neoclassicism hints at what he might have still accomplished had cancer not claimed his life at the age of 55. Even as Paris was under a growing assault by German forces, the composer experienced a creative surge in his final months.
Mutter says she was especially attuned to its tragic dimension when she recorded the sonata in 1995, a few weeks after her first husband died of cancer. “When talking about the piece I cannot be objective,” Mutter says. “It has this end-of-the-day feel. When you combine it with a personal tragedy, it has a very different light.”