In 1886, when he composed his Violin Sonata, César Franck (1822-1890) was 64 years old and still a fairly obscure figure in the French musical world: a church organist and professor of organ at the Paris Conservatory with not much of a reputation as a composer except among a small inner circle of younger composers. Franck dedicated the Sonata as a wedding present to Eugène Ysaÿe, a young Belgian who was in the process of establishing himself as one of the premier violinists in the world. Ysaÿe played the Sonata frequently over the next 40 or so years (he was fond of telling audiences that he always played it con amore because it was a wedding present), and his championing of the work contributed greatly to the stature Franck achieved only after his death in 1890.
The opening movement is remarkable for its reflective mood (Franck originally intended it as a slow movement, but Ysaÿe preferred a quicker tempo, and his playing convinced Franck to mark it allegretto), and for maintaining that mood throughout, avoiding the opposition of contrasting elements that characterizes most 19th-century sonata movements, particularly Franck’s.
Franck may have felt little need to put his themes through too many paces in the first movement, since they have more work to do in the remaining movements. He was fond of having later movements include material from earlier ones. Music critics use the rather inaccurate term “cyclical” to describe this technique, and the conventional wisdom is that it is used to impart “unity” to a multi-movement work. But it is not self-evident that “unity” is necessarily achieved by having the first movement’s theme show up in the last movement, nor that “unity” of this sort is necessarily a good thing. But cyclical composition is useful for a composer more comfortable developing themes than thinking them up in the first place, and it allows a composer to develop a theme in many more ways than might make sense in a single movement. His re-use of material in this sonata extends much further than having themes make cameo appearances in later movements. Rather, they are worked into the fabric and development as if they belong.
The piano’s churning arpeggios give the second movement a tremendous momentum that it twice loses in a broadening of tempo and a series of recollections of the first movement, until it becomes virtually static. Each time, the principal theme and its momentum are re-established.
The third movement is marked “Recitativo-Fantasia,” a hint that it belongs to two different compositional worlds: the recitative, with its to-the-point declamation of text or idea, linking larger pieces together and getting from Point A to Point B quickly; and the fantasia, which roams freely wherever the composer’s fancy goes. Franck’s fancy mainly goes to the previous two movements, though it can do so subtly. At the very beginning, for example, the piano recalls the first movement, though it may not be apparent for a few bars.
The idyllic melody of the finale belies the compositional stunt underlying it: it is a strict canon, with the violin imitating the piano’s right hand four beats later. In the development, its sunny disposition is a foil for the second movement’s stormy theme.
Lawyer and lutenist Howard Posner has also annotated programs for the Los Angeles Baroque Orchestra and the Coleman Chamber Concerts.