Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp (Debussy)

‘It’s frightfully melancholy,’ Debussy wrote to Godet. ‘I don’t know if one should laugh at it or cry? Perhaps both?’

Program note
Claude Debussy (1862–1918)
Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp

Pastorale
Interlude

Finale

In the final years of his life, in poor health and depressed at the state of Europe during the First World War, French composer Claude Debussy set out to write six sonatas for
‘diverse instruments’. The final piece in the cycle was to have included all the instruments used in the five previous works. Debussy’s publisher Jacques Durand wrote in his memoirs that it was a performance of Camille Saint-Saëns’ Septet (for trumpet, two violins, viola, cello, double bass and piano) that inspired the project. Debussy only completed three sonatas, however, before his death – one for cello and piano, one for violin and piano, and this haunting Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp.

Debussy was diagnosed with cancer in 1909. He began work on the sonata project in 1915 after recovering from an operation that had left him unable to compose for a year. ‘It’s only in the last three months, staying in the house of friends by the sea, that I’ve been able to think in music again,’ he wrote to Igor Stravinsky.

From the mysterious opening of the Pastorale, Debussy’s colourful palette appears to recall earlier works like Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun), written in the years after the composer’s life-changing exposure to Javanese Gamelan music at the 1889 Paris Exposition Universelle. Indeed, he described the Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp to a friend, Robert Godet, as ‘the music of a Debussy whom I no longer know.’

The flowing Interlude is marked ‘Tempo di minuetto’ but it is more an impressionistic suggestion of a dance than a literal dance movement, while the Finale presses forward with urgent intensity.

‘It’s frightfully melancholy,’ Debussy wrote to Godet. ‘I don’t know if one should laugh at it or cry? Perhaps both?’

© Angus McPherson, 2021

Related Articles

Skip to content