The shadow of death hovers over Debussy’s Violin Sonata though you would never guess from its generally genial disposition: in 1915, with his creative urges stifled by the slaughter of the Great War (he wrote barely anything during 1914), Debussy discovered that he had cancer of the rectum, his mother died on 23 March, and his mother-in-law six days later. In the summer of 1915 he and his wife rented a house at Pourville on the Normandy coast and he began to compose again. ‘I want to work,’ he wrote to his publisher Durand, ‘not so much for myself, as to provide a proof, however small, that thirty million Boches can’t destroy French thought...’
Among the works produced in this creative outburst were the Sonatas for cello and piano and for flute, viola and harp. These were the first of a planned Six sonates pour instruments divers, par Claude Debussy – musicien français (as he now signed himself). The Sonata for violin and piano to which he turned in 1916 was to be the last of these he completed – and indeed his last major work – before his death. Debussy found its composition difficult, finishing the final movement, Très animé, in October 1916, four months before completing the two preceding movements – Allegro vivo and Intermède (marked Fantasque et léger). The composer himself with the violinist Gaston Poulet gave the premiere on 5 May 1917 in the Salle Gaveau in aid of the charity Foyer du soldat aveugle. He played the Sonata again in September that year at two concerts in Biarritz, concerts which proved to be his last public performances.
Debussy died aged just 55 on 5 March 1918. Just two days earlier in Bologna, Ottorino Respighi with his old violin teacher Federico Sarti had given the premiere of his new Sonata in B minor. Completed within months of Debussy’s, it was composed shortly after Fontane di Roma, the first triptych of Respighi’s great trilogy of Roman tone poems which shot the composer to international fame, and contemporary with his most popular work, La Boutique fantasque (the ballet, based on Rossini’s music, written for Diaghilev’s Ballets russes).
Respighi had, in fact, written a violin sonata prior to the B minor masterpiece – the Sonata in D minor completed in 1897. The influences of Schumann, maybe Franck and certainly Brahms are readily discernible in this assured student work. Respighi, whose own instruments were the violin, viola and piano, had then gone on to study composition with Giuseppe Martucci and afterwards Rimsky-Korsakov. Yet the B minor Sonata, while naturally more confident and individual, still retains a Brahmsian flavour. Witness the first movement, Moderato, with its constantly changing meters and soaring lyrical line which leads to the Andante espressivo second movement in E major, rising to a passionate climax. The finale, Allegro moderato ma energico, was inspired by the last movement of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony, a passacaglia. Interestingly, instead of a conventional eight bar phrase, the theme is ten bars long. It is repeated eighteen times within the movement through various modulations before a muscular, intense coda brings the work to a conclusion with its final bars (Largo) marked ffff.
Some five and a half months after the premiere of Respighi’s Sonata – on the morning of 20 August 1918 to be precise – Sir Edward Elgar noted laconically, ‘Wrote some music’. The music was the preliminary sketch for what was to be his Violin Sonata in E minor op.82. Having produced virtually nothing in the previous twelve months, a sudden burst of energy saw Elgar’s three great chamber works – the Sonata, String Quartet op.83 and Piano Quintet op.84 – composed at Brinkwells, his Sussex home, between that August morning and early 1919.
Like the violin sonatas by Debussy and Respighi, Elgar’s has three movements (Allegro, Andante, Allegro non troppo) but here, while it has an important and busy part, the piano plays the more traditional role of accompanist than in the French and Italian works. W.H. Reed, who gave the first public performance with Landon Ronald (Aeolian Hall, 21 March 1919) thought that the Andante, with its central section anticipating the third movement of the Cello Concerto, was ‘utterly unlike anything I have ever heard in chamber or other music: it is most fantastic, and full of subtle touches of great beauty’. Elgar himself described the finale as ‘very broad and soothing like the last movement of the 11nd Symphy’ [sic].
There is nothing in the work to hint of the existence of composers like Bartók and Schoenberg but, as the critic L. Dutton Green wrote of the Sonata, ‘[it] seems like a protest against the far-fetched devices of the ultra- moderns – it seems to say: See what can be done yet with old forms, the old methods of composing, the old scales: if you only know how to do it your work may yet be new, yet original, yet beautiful.’
Jean Sibelius gained a comprehensive knowledge of the violin, having studied the instrument at Helsinki Conservatory in his youth. The Violin Concerto displays to the full a formidable grasp of the instrument’s capabilities, and Sibelius toyed with the idea of a second violin concerto during the period of the sixth and seventh symphonies. However, like the mystical eighth symphony these plans came to nothing. What we do have however, is a wonderful collection of shorter works for violin and piano which unaccountably have remained in relative obscurity. Opus numbers 78 to 81 date from the years of World War I. Finland’s communications with the rest of Europe during the conflict were almost cut off, and for Sibelius this period of isolation was one of financial and spiritual hardship. The short works for violin and piano provided a way to make ends meet as Scandinavian publishers were happy to take less challenging fare during this period. The charming Berceuse op.79/6, the last of a set of six pieces, is a calm, melancholy lullaby. (Jeremy Nicholas / October 2015)