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Debussy Violin Sonata


Debussy wrote his solitary Violin Sonata in his closing days of life, in the context of a historically turbulent time of World War I. Added onto the distress from the war, Debussy had problems of financial difficulties and health problem of a terminal cancer, which slowed his composition progresses, as evident in the long period of completion of the Violin sonata. In the summer 1915, he took his family to a sea –the channel coast at Pourville- and drafted a project, intended to be named as Six sonates pour instruments divers, par Claude Debussy, musician francais (Six sonatas for various instruments, by Claude Debussy, French musician.) Dedicated to his wife Emma, the Violin Sonata was the third and the last (as Debussy never got to the rest of the three sonatas before his death,) in the set, completed in 1917, following the completion of the Sonatas for Harp, Flute, and Viola (originally for Harp, Flute, and Oboe,) and for Cello and Piano, written in 1915. The first performance took place on May 5th, 1917 with Debussy at the piano, along with violinist Gaston Poulet. This was Debussy’s last public appearance before his death on March 26th of the year.1

It was also during these last years with the ongoing war and his existing dislike of the Germans, that Debussy exhibited elevated spirit of nationalism in his music. Specifically, in his late works, he composed to differentiate from everything German (especially the music of Richard Wagner,) and rather reflected national pride by looking back at forms and values of the old French masters, such as Couperin, Leclair, and Rameau. The Violin Sonata is an example of such compositional intention, in that, although entitled as a “Sonata,” it deviates from the established German traditional sonata form, but rather portrays a new conception of the forms and characteristics of the 17th, 18thC French composers. 2 Furthermore, Debussy made obvious of such increased patriotism in his final years, always signing himself “musician Francais” or “French musician” and citing his country’s illustrious musical heritage. He even requested Durand, the publisher, to engrave the title page of the collection in an archaic style reminiscent of the decorated editions of the works of Rameau.

Despite the emphasis on French traditions in Debussy’s late works, there were influences from other cultures and nations, mostly from Spanish and Asian music, and parts of the Violin Sonata exhibit Spanish flare and gypsy character. The gypsy influence originated from Debussy’s meeting with a gypsy violinist in Budapest in 1910. This experience left a considerable impression on him, and the precarious, capricious, and passionate traits of gypsy idioms are also heard in the Violin Sonata, especially in the finale.

Although the Violin Sonata is a much appreciated chamber music now, at the time when it was first presented to the public, the critics have found the violin sonata to be on a lower level than its companions, Lockspeiser, for instance, calling it “an illuminating failure.”3 Critics found the sonata’s musical content to be less imaginative, and disliked its form, which is a blend of sonata with the cyclical form Debussy had employed in the String Quartet. 4 Even the composer himself once dismissed the as having only documentary interest and labeled it as merely “an example of what a sick man can write during a war”5 Nevertheless, the Violin Sonata has gained reverence over the years, a work considered highly in artistic and compositional features, becoming a standard in chamber music.


Debussy is credited as the leader of French musical impressionism (or symbolism, as Debussy preferred to term,) and his Violin Sonata is stated to be a minor example where “French chamber music finds its perfect counterpart to the paintings of Monet, who laid emphasis on the shifting play of light rather than on actual objects.”6

In the sonata, such impressionistic concept is suggested in its expressions of ambiguous, yet innovative and variant sonority and form, and conflicting atmospheres and characteristics, both aesthetically and compositionally. From an overall aesthetic perspective, Debussy's Violin Sonata is a work instilled with melancholy color that nevertheless also captures contradicting qualities such as joy and silliness. Compositionally, although he had named the work as a sonata, the work does not strictly follow the norms of "sonata" in the formal sense of a sonata form, (the first movement does loosely, but with much deviations,) but perhaps rather reflects the archaic meaning “to sound,” and adheres more to Baroque sonata’s simper traits. Because of the irregularity of the sonata’s style and structure, critics suggest that the work can be categorized as a fantasia rather than a sonata.7 Such ambiguousness and ambivalence in form, sound, and character all attribute to Debussy’s innovative language of musical impressionism.

The Violin Sonata is in three movements: Allegro vivo, Intermede, and Finale.

The first movement, as mentioned before, is in a rough sonata form, but it has many inconsistencies that lead to a few different interpretations of the structure. One interpretation can be summarized as the following: Exposition’s 1st theme in G minor, is characterized by the smooth dolce espressivo violin line setting a subdued atmosphere of nostalgia and sadness, over the serene and slow “oscillation” of the piano chords. Transition section is labeled En serrant, and 2nd theme is set with a G pedal in the violin and the contrasting and livelier ascending marque pentatonic scale in the piano. Closing section is marked Appassionato, which brings back the motives from the transition after the 1st theme (En serrant segment,) and the texture and gesture of opening motive to end the Exposition. Development begins with a pairing of sur la touché violin line over piano arpeggio and chordal melody in piano under violin harmonics, first in E Major and then in C Major, and is followed by a transition over an Eb pedal and another new melody in the violin, revisited later in the movement. Recapitulation brings back the 1st theme melody in G minor, stated twice, first in the piano and then in the violin. Unlike in the Exposition, the piano chordal melody of the Development section is inserted before the revisit of En serrant, which is truncated. The entire 2nd theme is omitted and the closing Appassionato is also truncated and modified, followed by the revisit of the 1st theme, coupled with the closing violin melody of the Development, stated twice, first in the piano part then in the violin. Coda closes the movement with exploration of bits of En serrant motives and again, the closing melody of the Development section, transformed into a character with Spanish flare. In summary, although the movement can be analyzed as a sonata form, there are deviations such as aberrant key scheme of 2nd theme, the absence of the 2nd theme in the Recapitulation, and revisits, insertions, and combinations of different motives in untraditional places, that blur the strict criterion of sonata form. The movement is more of an example of cyclical structure and neoclassic four-bar phrase construction with conspicuous irregularities, and shows that even his conservative formal scheme of sonata form in late works such as the Violin Sonata, reflects his increasingly multi-dimensional approach to form.8

Along with the multi-dimensional character of the form of the first movement, few other factors contribute to its ambiguous quality. The movement is in ¾ meter, but the triple feel is obscured by use of hemiolas and unequal subdivisions within a measure. For example, the opening falling melody is in duple grouping over the almost dormant piano chords, which is grouped in three beats. Further obscurity is exhibited in these opening bars, as the melody in the violin outlines a G Aeolian, but the piano chords with the altered E natural in the subdominant chord suggests G Dorian mode.9

In contrast to the external ambiguousness described thus far, Debussy uses pitch class pairing for structure in the first movement. The opening for example shows the usage of several complement pairs of pitch class sets: m1-9 forms 7-26 (0134579) and m9 has 5-26(02458) the complement, as the sum of chord and the line. M1-14 is 8-27 (0124578T) and although 4-27 (0258) is inconspicuous in those bars (embedded in the V9 of m10-12 as the overlapping upper and lower tetrachords), it is the first harmony in m15. M1-17 forms set 9-7 (01234578T), whose trichordal complement is prominent in the accompaniment’s upper line in m.10-14, as 247, which is (025) 3-7.10

The second movement is described as Fantasque et leger, which means “light and fantastic.” Contrast to the first movement, this movement is more extroverted and playful in spirit and has more of equal roles between the piano and the violin than in the first movement. Its overall character and compositional gestures strongly remind the corresponding movement in the cello sonata, where, just as in the cello sonata, which was originally to be titled “Pierrot fâché avec la lune" (Pierrot angry with the moon,) the images of a sad, love-sick clown with white face and floppy clothes are painted. However, unlike the cello sonata whose overall mood is sad and ironic, the movement is lighter, sillier, and less gloomy in character.

The movement is a combination of capricious and jumpy motives with a hint of coquettishness and contrasting themes of more melodious and sensuous features.11 Different sections of these contrasting themes are juxtaposed in a scheme that does not adhere to any established form. The subsections of opening jerky and abrupt theme and the middle languid and linear theme are loosely stated twice in the movement, giving a vague two-part structure, and are placed in an order seemingly lacking deliberateness or interrelatedness. However, all these subsections, clearly delineated with different character or tempo markings, are all unified with the repetition of single notes, either rapid and restless or indolent and indulgent. The framework of the movement can be summarized as the following: First section – A. Beginning to before the 2nd au Mouvt, B. (the 2nd) au Mouvt, C. 1st Scherzando, B. au Mouvt, Second section- D. 2nd Scherzando, E. Meno mosso, B. au Mouvt, E. Meno mosso, D (2nd Scherzando) without specific marking, with the falling violin gesture (reminiscent of the end of the opening violin motive) that ends the movement. Besides considering the form of the movement as an innovative binary structure, it can be viewed as a backward rondo form, if we consider D and E as one unit with B as the ritornello, which is not stated at the beginning nor the end, but revisited in between different sections.

The last movement opens with a quasi tremolo gesture in the piano, which has an augmented and rhythmically altered Meno mosso (E) theme from the second movement in the beats of the piano left hand. Followed with a short reappearance of the first movement’s opening theme, the finale continues into a virtuous and vivacious rondo theme which, in his letter to Godet, a close friend, Debussy described as follows:

“Through a quite humane contradiction, it is full of a joyous tumult. In the future mistrust those works which appear to soar across the sky; often they have wallowed in the dark of a gloomy brain. Such is the finale of this sonata, which goes through the most curious deformations ending up with the simple game of an idea which turns on itself like a snake swallowing its tail.12

This ritornello theme, always stated in the violin, is like a mini cadenza with a long, sensuously winding melody, almost a habanera, again hinting Spanish character. The form of the movement is a rondo after the opening section that reminisces themes from the previous movements, and can be summarized as the following: Introduction, A, B, A, C (slow and gypsy-like in character,) Introduction (modified), A (slow and only first half of the theme repeated,) D, A, composed out also in the piano in augmentation, leading to two false endings, before the Coda, which is a manifestation of the A theme. Debussy finished the final movement, Très animé, in October 1916, four months before he completed the preceding two movements.


The artistic challenge for the Violin Sonata is the collaboration of senses and spirit that is unique to Debussy’s late works. Unlike sonatas from earlier periods, the two instruments do not accompany each other but rather, one instrument leads with a pulling energy against the counter melody or motif of the other. Ultimately, this creates a different kind of interaction and sound, as the two instruments challenge one another, but their arguments ultimately bringing each other closer together.13 There are also several ensemble issues, as each movement has many sections with tempo and character variances that require a great communication and unity of interpretation between the performers. Technically, the violin part is more challenging, although, the third movement calls for much control and dexterity in the piano part as well, as the main bulk of the finale is a showcase of agility in both parts. In particular, Debussy uses the maximum pitch range available on the violin, going from the open G (lowest possible note of the instrument) to a C-sharp at three octaves and a half-step above the middle C.

In conclusion, with the understanding of the background, compositional/aesthetic scheme and spirit Debussy’s composition, the performance of the Violin Sonata can be very powerful. It is certainly a work with considerable artistic values, compositional ingenuity, and performance effectiveness, begotten despite the dismal circumstances of both the composer’s life and European history.

1 Music of Debussy, Gilles Potvin, Analekta Inc. CD #74204 30212

2 Debussy, Edward Lockspeiser, J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd, 1963, p164

3 Debussy The Quiet Revolutionary, Victor Lederer, Amadeus Press, New York, 2007 p140

4 Debussy The Quiet Revolutionary, Victor Lederer, Amadeus Press, New York, 2007 p140

5 Claude Debussy and Twentieth-Century Music, Arthur B Wenk, Twyne Publishers, New York, 1983 p.18

6 Chamber Music, A. Hyatt King, New York Chanticleer Press, 1948 p62

7 Music of Debussy, Gilles Potvin, Analekta Inc. CD #74204 30212

8 The Music of Claude Debussy, Richard S. Parks, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1942, p220

9 The Music of Claude Debussy, Richard S. Parks, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1942, p.41

10 The Music of Claude Debussy, Richard S. Parks, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1942, p.159-60

11 Debussy, Edward Lockspeiser, J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd, 1963, p 172, 180

12 Claude Debussy and Twentieth-Century Music, Arthur B Wenk, Twyne Publishers, 1983 p.18

13 Claude Debussy, Midori, http://www.gotomidori.com/english/musicnote-200302/musicnote-37debussy.html