When you think of French composer Claude Debussy (1862-1918), his vast oeuvre of music for the piano will inevitably come to mind, and perhaps his reputation as arguably the first ‘Impressionist’ composer (although he himself hated the term).
But in terms of chamber music, he did gift the bowed stringed instrument family one solitary but exquisite string quartet (1893, opus 10); and towards the end of his life (1915), he began (but didn’t manage to complete) a cycle of six sonatas “for various instruments”.
Debussy was a very sick man in 1915, suffering from bowel cancer. He underwent one of the earliest colostomy operations that year, which gave him only temporary respite, if any. “There are mornings when the effort of dressing seems like one of the twelve labours of Hercules”, he confessed.
The previous year, he had been encouraged by the music publisher Jacques Durand, to write a set of six sonatas “for various instruments”, in homage to French composers of the 18th century, notably François Couperin and Jean-Philippe Rameau.
The First World War was raging, and patriotic feelings were understandably running high. Debussy even signed the score ‘Claude Debussy – Musicien Français.’
The plan for the set was as follows: Sonata 1 for cello piano; no. 2 for flute, viola and harp; no. 3 for violin and piano; no. 4 for oboe, horn and harpsichord; no. 5 for trumpet, clarinet, bassoon and piano; and the last sonata for chamber ensemble “combining all the previously used instruments”, “with the gracious assistance of the double bass”.
Sadly, only the first three saw the light of day. The violin sonata in G minor, L. 140 (1916-1917) was to be his final completed composition. Its premiere took place on 5 May 1917, with the violin part played by Gaston Poulet and Debussy himself at the piano in what would be his last public performance.
His letter to a colleague the following month is almost dismissive of his swan song: “I only wrote this sonata to be rid of the thing, spurred on by my dear publisher….. 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.”
Hardly an endorsement, which is perhaps why the sonata hasn’t been part of mainstream violin performance repertoire, although that is beginning to change.
The sonata is in three movements (Allegro vivo; Intermède: Fantasque et léger’ and Finale: Très animé), whose “ultra-traditional sonata form” (as also in the previous two sonatas in the incomplete set) some may find remarkable for a composer like Debussy, particularly after two decades of experimentalism, in which he wrote music that seemed to be floating in free space, and scornful of academic models.
Marianne Wheeldon in her book “Debussy’s Late Style” offers an explanation: the war. “Given the very real destruction taking place across Europe, [Debussy] sought to attach himself to a French musical heritage, as the total demolition of traditions now seemed wholly inappropriate.”
At just about thirteen minutes, the violin sonata is remarkably short, (as is the first sonata in the set for cello and piano, at about eleven minutes), but it encompasses a wide range of moods and emotions.
Several famous violinists, in an article in Strings magazine last year celebrating the centenary of the violin sonata, offered a remarkably diverse set of observations about the work.
French violinist Renaud Capuçon described the sonata as “one of those pieces where you recognize the composer after a few bars. His sense of melody, his sense of harmonies, and his way of being very compact is quite clear.”
“It’s such a wonderful example of French music,” said Anne-Sophie Mutter, who recorded the piece in 1995.
“It’s so different. The sonata is just an incredible example of sound colors, of delicacy, and subtlety of tonal development. It’s one of the most difficult pieces to play, 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.”
Canadian violinist James Ehnes felt that “there’s a certain amount of code-cracking that needs to go on with learning the piece and digesting the language. 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.”
Why am I choosing to write about this particular violin sonata this Sunday? Because I remember hearing Sanya Myla Cotta play it in 2016, if memory serves correctly. And because it will be her month’s mind tomorrow.
Like many of you, I’ve not been able to get her out of my mind from the time we learned of her illness. And in the last few days, I think back increasingly to her performance of this work.
Sanya is remembered, and quite rightly so, for the many virtuosic showpieces she dashed off with such aplomb on our concert stage.
But I think her heart was in weightier, more ‘serious’, intimate, pensive music in the violin repertoire, that is to say, the great violin sonatas. She said as much to me when we talked about the Mozart violin sonatas I had mentioned in an earlier column.
The last paragraph of the Strings magazine article brought a lump to my throat as I read it. Apparently Anne-Sophie Mutter was “especially attuned to the tragic dimension” of the Debussy sonata when she recorded it in 1995, just a few weeks after her first husband died of cancer.
She said, “When talking about the piece I cannot be objective. It has this end-of-the-day feel. When you combine it with a personal tragedy, it has a very different light.”
And now, for me, for us, this sonata too has a very different light. In my mind, it will be inextricably linked to the memory of Sanya Myla Cotta. For this, and for so much else, Sanya, a big Thank You for the Music.
(An edited version of this article was published on 19 May 2019 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)