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Just before its premiere in May 1917, Debussy expressed great
satisfaction with the Sonata for Violin and Piano, the last of his completed works. His opinion soon changed, however, and in a letter to Robert Godet dated June 7, 1917, he wrote: "You should know, my too trusting friend, that I only wrote this Sonata to be rid of the thing, spurred on as I was by my dear publisher. You who are able to read between the staves, will see traces of [Poe's] The Imp of the Perverse who encourages one to choose the very subject which should be ignored. This Sonata will be interesting from a documentary viewpoint and as an example of what may be produced by a sick man in time of war." (Godet was good enough to send a thoughtful, encouraging reply.)
The delicate opening quickly succumbs to a quixotic melodrama featuring "Spanishistic" soliloquies in the violin. The second movement is playfully macabre, with scherzo-like staccato passages in the piano underneath lyrical statements from the violin, and the dovetailing of the two voices between this idea and a second theme that evolves from the metronomic staccato. The introduction to the third movement, a twinkly piano tremolo passage against the violin's restatement as black as the night sky of the work's first theme, is grossly incongruous from the material immediately before or after it. It stands as a reminder that despite this work's feigned jocularity, it is the work of a man acutely aware of the pain of death. "In keeping with the contradictory spirit of human nature," he wrote, again, to Godet in May 1915, "it is full of a joyous tumult. Beware in future of works which appear to inhabit the skies; often they are the product of a dark, morose mind."
- Meg Ryan is the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association's Publications Assistant.