…the simple play of an idea that turns back on itself. Like the serpent that bites its own tail.
Claude Debussy (1862–1918)
Sonata in G minor for Violin and Piano, L. 140
Intermède: Fantasque et léger
Finale: Très animé
Claude Debussy’s Sonata for Violin and Piano in G minor was the French composer’s final completed composition. In what were to be his last years, and against the devastating backdrop of the First World War, Debussy planned to write six sonatas for ‘diverse instruments’ but only finished three, including this sonata, before he died of cancer in 1918. Debussy performed the sonata himself at the premiere, with Gaston Poulet on violin, in his final public performance in Paris on May 5, 1917.
Debussy’s health made composing a struggle and he wrote wryly in a letter to his friend Robert Godet after the premiere that he composed the sonata ‘to be rid of the thing, spurred on as I was by my dear publisher.’
Only a month earlier he had been relatively happy with the piece, writing that it was ‘full of a joyous tumult,’ but now he described it as ‘an example of what may be produced by a sick man in time of war.’
The opening movement begins with tranquil, almost sunny, chords from the piano, the violin soon taking the listener on a virtuosic, improvisatory journey with a touch of folk music. It’s in the playful second movement that we really hear Debussy’s ‘joyous tumult’ before the violin reintroduces the opening movement’s theme in the animated Finale.
Debussy wrote that this movement ‘passed through many curious deformations, to end up with the simple play of an idea that turns back on itself. Like the serpent that bites its own tail.’
© Angus McPherson, 2023