One of the last of Debussy’s compositions, the piece is the third of a projected series of six sonatas for various instruments. Tonal and modal concerns intermix in the opening “Allegro vivo,” for as is generally the case with Debussy’s oeuvre, common-practice harmonic concerns are not at issue. In fact, a measure of Debussy’s stylistic consistency relates to the means by which closure is achieved at the levels of phrase, section, movement, and the complete work, for when no overriding harmonic principles can be assumed, other compositional means must be established for effectively rendering goal orientation. In the opening movement of the sonata, the subtly complex rhythmic interplay of the violin and piano—and more specifically, both with and against each other and the prevailing meter—provides an unnerving propulsive force that abates in the final measures without having wholly resolved the many layers of conflict established in these 5 minutes of music.
The partnership between the violin and piano is made out to be more tenuous in the middle-movement “Intermède” than in either the “Allegro vivo,” or the “Finale.” Utilizing one of his most common tempo indications, Debussy heads the movement with the instruction Fantasque et léger (“whimsical,” or “temperamental and light”) and this character comes across in all aspects of the movement, not the least of which being its “choppy” flow attributable to irregularity among the short phrases and sub-phrases, numerous tempo and dynamic alterations, various accentual patterns, and the constant if quirky exchanges of leading and following roles in the violin and piano. The movement might best be characterized as “forever getting underway,” as the features just mentioned leave one with the impression of many starts and few compelling conclusions: thus the appropriateness of the progressively slower tempo and steady decrescendo in dynamic intensity in advance of the morendo conclusion (“dying away”).
As is true in each of the earlier Cello Sonata (1915) and the Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp (1916), the Violin Sonata is a three-movement work exhibiting cyclic qualities, for material of the opening recurs in subsequent movements. The initial violin gesture in the “Finale”—entering in m. 9 only after the piano has established a triple meter—revisits the principal motive from the first movement of the sonata, and sets up a more notable rhythmic conflict with the piano than is the case at the outset of the piece. It is important to note that on its return subtle changes in the motive extend to a level beyond the pronounced rhythmic hemiola, for a slight tonal deflection occurring toward the end of the motive proves to be the propulsive force initiating the extended first section in this peculiar ABA structure. The B section is stylistically cross-referential to a portion of the “Intermède,” and thus at one level the “Finale” is a microcosmic projection of events that occur over the complete sonata. And in a reversal of what transpires in the middle movement, the concluding A section of the “Finale” continues to intensify in terms of energy level via increases in tempo, dynamic, and other musical parameters, until the multiple-stopped chords in the violin and the six-octave span between the piano’s right- and left-hand gestures are left as the only means of dissipating the très animé romp of the concluding moments of the composition.
Program Notes by Gregory Marion
Assistant Professor of Music Theory
The University of Saskatchewan