Sonata in A major (1886)
Allegretto ben moderato
Allegretto poco mosso
Composed in 1886, the Violin Sonata in A major is one of the finest examples of Franck's use of cyclic form, a technique he had adapted from his friend Franz Liszt, in which themes from one movement are transformed and used over subsequent movements. The Violin Sonata is a particularly ingenious instance of this technique: virtually the entire sonata is derived from the quiet and unassuming opening of the first movement, which then evolves endlessly across the sonata. Even when a new theme seems to arrive, it will gradually be revealed as a subtle variant of the one already heard.
The piano's quiet fragmented chords at the beginning of the Allegretto ben moderato suggest a theme-shape that the violin takes over as it enters: this will be the thematic cell of the entire sonata. The piano has a more animated second subject (it takes on the shape of the germinal theme as it proceeds), but the gently-rocking violin figure from the opening dominates this movement, and Franck reminds the performers constantly to play molto dolce, sempre dolce, dolcissimo.
The mood changes completely at the fiery second movement, marked passionato, and some critics have gone so far as to claim that this Allegro is the true first movement and that the opening Allegretto should be regarded as an introduction to this movement. In any case, this movement contrasts its blazing opening with more lyric episodes, and listeners will detect the original theme-shape flowing through some of these.
The Recitativo-Fantasia is the most original movement in the sonata. The piano's quiet introduction seems at first a revisiting of the germinal theme, though it is - ingeniously - a variant of the passionato opening of the second movement. The violin makes its entrance with an improvisation-like passage (this is the fantasia of the title), and the entire movement is quite free in both structure and expression: moments of whimsy alternate with passionate outbursts.
After the expressive freedom of the third movement, the finale restores order with pristine clarity: it is a canon in octaves, with one voice following the other at the interval of a measure. The stately canon theme, marked dolce cantabile, is a direct descendant of the sonata's opening theme, and as this movement proceeds it recalls thematic material from earlier movements. Gradually, the music takes on unexpected power and drives to a massive coda and a thunderous close.
Franck wrote this sonata for his fellow Belgian, the great violinist Eugene Ysaye, who gave the premiere in Brussels in November 1886. The composer Vincent D'Indy recalled that premiere: "The violin and piano sonata was performed ... in one of the rooms of the Museum of Modern Painting at Brussels. The séance, which began at three o'clock, had been very long, and it was rapidly growing dark. After the first Allegretto of the sonata, the performers could scarcely read the music. Now the official regulations forbade any light whatever in rooms which contained paintings. Even the striking of a match would have been matter of offense. The public was about to be asked to leave, but the audience, already full of enthusiasm, refused to budge. Then Ysaye was heard to strike his music stand with his bow, exclaiming [to the pianist], "Allons! Allons!" [Let's go] And then, unheard-of-marvel, the two artists, plunged in gloom ... performed the last three movements from memory, with a fire and passion the more astounding to the listeners in that there was an absence of all externals which could enhance the performance. Music, wondrous and alone, held sovereign sway in the darkness of night."