Harmony, gentleness – the piano. Tension, agitation – the violin. In 1868 Alexis de Castillon has written his Sonata for Violin and Piano in C major (Op. 6), fascinating and disturbing at the same time. The first movement attempts to join two disparate moods by force, for the music is very forceful, at least at the beginning. Half way through the movement the mood changes, a certain melancholy, expressed by the violin, sets in, the piano voice moves to the background and adds a dramatic touch.A fast first movement is followed by an equally animated scherzo – an unusual arrangement, but the galloping sound pushes the music forward, a logic continuation of the first movement, resulting in a certain breathlessness. But then, a brutal stop, a plaintive melody, with a very nervous, insistent piano thrusting the movement forward – this unlike anything I have heard before! De Castillon now adds a humorsome touch – is this a parody of Romantic expressiveness and its deep emotionality?
Trial and error
When de Castillon wrote this piece, he was 30 years old and he had not yet discovered his compositional preferences, his idea of Beauty, his musical language, and the sonata along with his Piano Trio in B flat major (Op. 4) can be considered as “trial-and-error” pieces. De Castillon dedicated the sonata to his friend Eraïm Miriam M. Delaborde, a French virtuoso pianist and composer. A year after he wrote de sonata, in 1869, the composer started to study under César Franck and destroyed many of his earlier works. Nevertheless he published the sonata in 1870. In the same year he took part in the French-Prussian war and came back as sick and weak man, and the last two movements seem to anticipate some of what de Castillon may have experienced during the war.
The third movement reminds me of a funeral march, very sad, a wounded soul lamenting the death of a dear friend. The finale starts again on a vigorous note, stirring ar first, gradually more and more disconcerting, very powerful, overwhelming in the many contradictory emotions it triggers – certainly not a piece for the weak heart. But if your ears are tuned to avant-garde French music, going far beyond the Romantic tradition and opening the door to a new aesthetic concept, seeing dissonance as an integral part of composition, then de Castillon’s sonata will not only surprise you, but charm you and win you over.
De Castillon’s sonata has been recorded by Jacques Perrenin, Georges Schwartz and Monique Mercier.
© Charles Thibo