Debussy at 100 Program Notes

Program notes by Jonathan Blumhofer

Claude Debussy (1862-1918)

Sonata for Violin and Piano (1917)
Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp (1916)
Sonata for Cello and Piano (1915)

 The last four years of Debussy’s life were marked, first, by the outbreak of World War 1 and, then, by the progression of the colon cancer that would kill him the spring before the carnage ended. Ultimately, both had a deep effect on his output over the years 1914-18.

As a French patriot, his music of the time veered between the propagandistic (like the Berceuse Héroïque, written in honor of King Albert I and the Belgian army) and works deeply rooted in French musical history. The sonatas on the current program strongly reflect the latter. Debussy originally intended to write six of them but, in the end, only managed to complete these three.

Chronologically, the first to be finished was the D-minor Sonata for Cello and Piano. It’s less than fifteen minutes long, though it packs a world of expression into that brief duration. The first movement “Prologue” opens and closes with a dolorous cello melody; in between comes a fleet animando. There’s a bit of Spanish flavor to be found in the central “Serenade” while the “Finale” offers a vigorous array of color.

The middle sonata, for the striking instrumentation of flute, viola, and harp, shares some similarities with the Cello Sonata. Its first movement, “Pastorale,” follows a similar shape, with a series of motives in its outer thirds framing an amiable, dance-like middle section. The central “Interlude” balances the French Baroque (its minuet form, clear textures, and emotional reserve) with 20th-century tendencies (whole-tone melodies, parallel chord progressions, etc.). In the finale, three motives – a pizzicato viola gesture, series of flute arpeggios, and longer viola melody – are subject to Debussy’s sophisticated developmental procedures.

Like the Cello Sonata, the one for violin is brief (again, only about fifteen minutes long) but profound. Its first movement is filled with alluring lyrical strokes and always seems to float – the barline is almost constantly obscured. In the contrasting second, driving rhythmic figures recall gypsy fiddling and Mediterranean frescoes. The finale, after some echoes of the first movement, is largely an ecstatic dance.

The Sonata for Violin and Piano proved to be Debussy’s last completed work. He was the pianist at its May 1917 premiere and performed it again that September, his last public appearance. Six months later he was gone.


Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924)
Piano Quartet no. 1 in C minor, op. 15 (1879, rev. 1883)

Fauré’s turbulent first Piano Quartet dates from the aftermath of his breakup with Marianne Viardot, a woman he had courted for five years only to see her end their engagement after just four months.

Its first movement opens with a stern, dotted figure that’s gradually softened and leads to a flowing, lyrical second theme. An off-balance scherzo follows, which breezily shifts between 2/4 and 6/8; a muted trio provides a striking contrast.

At the heart of the Quartet comes a searing Adagio. It begins with tolling, bell-like figures from the piano accompanied by a bleak string melody. Gradually, the music becomes more animated and warmer, though the dark mood returns at the end.

Fauré rewrote the Quartet’s finale in 1883 and apparently destroyed the original shortly before his death. The new movement recalls episodes from the first and third movements (particularly the first’s dotted-rhythms). It’s rather episodic in character, moving briskly – sometimes even a bit spastically – between ideas, but eventually settles in a bright, blazing C major.