This piece has melancholy written large all over it. The first bars, the slow, lamenting tune of the violin, the accentuation by the piano. This piece has salvation written large all over it. The first bars, the crystal clear piano phrases exuding calmness, the violin pointing to a better future. What a piece! The violinist Isabelle Faust and the pianist Alexander Melnikov recently released their recording of César Franck’s Sonata for Piano and Violin in A major, FW 8, and I fell in love with it precisely from those first bars on.
Looking back, looking forward
What a singularly enchanting composition! It strongly reminds me of the general mood of Gabriel Dupont’s piano piece “Les Heures Dolentes”, which is already scheduled for a future post. Both fuse regret and hope, the sad look back and the optimistic look forward, which I think is extraordinary. When music triggers at the same time two ideas opposed to each other, when the composer sublimes a psychological conflict, an emotional contradiction, he has achieved a high degree of excellence.
César Franck wrote this piece in 1886, towards the end of his career, about the time he wrote “Prélude, Chorale et Fugue”, that I have presented in a post last November. He was early recognized as a musical talent, not necessarily to his advantage, as his parents pushed him as a child prodigy. In 1830, at the age of 8, he enrolled in the conservatory of Liège (eastern Belgium today), in 1835 he embarked on a concert tour as a pianist. At the same time he started to compose small piece.
Success and deceptions
After the Franck family had moved to Paris, young César continued his studies at the prestigious Conservatoire de Paris. When he wrote the sonata in A minor, he looked back at life of successes and deceptions. While he could support himself as an organist and music teacher, and while he gained an excellent reputation as an improviser, his compositions did not become popular. Difficult personal situations and the political upheaval in Paris in 1848 did not exactly help things. However, an extremely creative phase started in 1874 and lasted until Franck’s death in 1890.
The Sonata was composed as a wedding present for the famous Belgian violinist and composer Eugene Ysaÿe, who performed it at his matrimonial celebrations on September 26, 1886. Two influences become apparent in the piece: the cyclical structure of the themes, a principle Franck borrowed from Franz Liszt, and the voice-led chromaticism*, that he absorbed form Richard Wagner whose “Tristan und Isolde” had greatly impressed Franck. Franck’s student Vincent d’Indy remembers the premiere in Brussels later in 1886: “Music, wondrous and alone, held sovereign sway in the darkness of the night. The miracle will never be forgotten.”
© Charles Thibo
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