What do you give someone as a gift on their wedding day? Well, if the groom is the reigning ‘King of the Violin’ and you just happen to be one of the most celebrated composers in the land, called ‘Père’ even by other composers and students, a violin sonata would be just the thing.
On Tuesday 17 January 2017, Child’s Play India Foundation presents a benefit concert at the Menezes Braganza hall 6.30 pm featuring Madeleine Mitchell, Professor of Violin at the Royal College of Music London and pianist US-trained Goan-origin Evelyn Dias.
One of the highlights of their programme will be the César Franck Violin Sonata in A major, arguably one of the finest sonatas for violin and piano ever written, and certainly one of the composer’s best-known and most-loved works.
It is the only sonata César Franck (1822-1890) wrote for the violin, and was completed in 1886, just four years before his death, and a year before the other work he is also remembered for, his monumental (and only) Symphony in D minor.
A violin sonata was on his mind for several decades before that, as he had promised one to Cosima von Bülow (illegitimate daughter of Hungarian pianist-composer Franz Liszt, and who married first the conductor Hans von Bülow and then Richard Wagner), as far back as 1858, in acknowledgment of her praise of his music.
That promise lay unfulfilled, although it is thought that Franck must have begun work on the sonata and got the impetus to finish it in time for the wedding of 31-year old Belgian violinist virtuoso and composer-conductor Eugène-Auguste Ysaÿe. He presented it to the groom-to-be on the morning of his wedding, 26 September 1886. A hurried playthrough took place soon after, and Ysaÿe and pianist Léontine Bordes-Pène (who had also been invited to the wedding) played it for the wedding guests at the reception.
It is a measure of the prowess of both musicians that they performed it after such a brief acquaintance with the new score. Apart from the punishing demands on the violin, the piano part is extremely daunting as well. Franck was himself a pianist and organist and had exceptionally large hands, so the writing reflects this, especially in the second movement of the sonata, with its virtuoso runs, leaps and extended figures. Obviously a legend like Ysaÿe had no wedding-day jitters the moment he picked up his violin!
Franck believed in thematic unity in his compositions, and this work, like many of his other compositions, is written in ‘cyclic form’: a theme or thematic material occurs through the work in more than one movement, (often transformed), as a unifying device.
I came across an interesting description of the César Franck sonata for violin and piano seen almost as a metaphor for a wedding and marriage, by pianist Nicholas Burns, which I found quite vivid and helped me to regard it in a new light: “The work itself neatly encapsulates the story of the happy bride and groom. The first movement evokes the first flickers of attraction, eventually building to great outbursts of love. The couple, now together face their first feud in the second movement where the spurned party can be heard in the pleading quieter passages while the violent fury of the faster writing vividly portrays their conflict. All is resolved in the quietly meditative slow third movement before the famous finale cleverly captures the wedding ceremony itself. Written in canon, the violin follows the piano exactly before the roles are reversed, mirroring the repetition of the wedding vows. The quiet, solemn writing evokes prayer and again huge outbursts of emotion punctuate the writing before we once again hear the celebratory Parisienne bells right at the end.”
The sonata was premiered in public at the Musée Moderne de Peinture in Brussels on December 16, 1886, by Ysaÿe and Bordes-Pène as the last work of an all-Franck concert. Franck’s pupil and admirer Vincent d’Indy was present and chronicled the performance: “It was already growing dark as the Sonata began. After the first Allegretto, the players could hardly read their music. Unfortunately, museum regulations forbade any artificial light whatever in rooms containing paintings; the mere striking of a match would have been an offense. The audience was about to be asked to leave, but, brimful with enthusiasm, they refused to budge. At this point, Ysaÿe struck his music stand with his bow, demanding, “Let’s go on!” Then, wonder of wonders, amid darkness that now rendered them virtually invisible, the two artists played the last three movements from memory with a fire and passion the more astonishing in that there was a total lack of the usual visible externals that enhance a concert performance. Music, wondrous and alone, held sovereign sway in the blackness of night. The miracle will never be forgotten by those present.”
Many music-lovers might remember Madeleine Mitchell’s recital in Goa, with Klaus Zoll her accompanist, in 1989. I was also in the violins of the Bombay Chamber Orchestra when she performed the Max Bruch Violin Concerto under the baton of Dr. George Trautwein in the same India tour. And Evelyn Dias has performed in Goa much more recently, both as soloist and as accompanist.
During my England years, I heard through the music grapevine that Mitchell had become Professor of Violin at the Royal College of Music London, and I heard her play on BBC Radio3 a few times. It has been a great pleasure for Child’s Play India Foundation to contribute to bringing her back on an India tour, with Evelyn Dias as her accompanist this time, after a hiatus of almost three decades. Goa is privileged to be on her itinerary. It will be an unforgettable concert.
(An edited version of this article was published on 15 January 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)