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In 1872 Camille Saint-Saëns, Fauré’s former piano teacher, introduced the younger composer to the great singer Pauline Viardot and her extended musical family and salon. Fauré dedicated a number of his songs to that influential doyenne, fell in love with her daughter Marianne (who would break off their engagement after three months), and dedicated his First Violin Sonata to her son, the violinist and composer Paul Viardot.
It was Marie Tayau, however, a rising young star and the leader of a pioneering all-female string quartet, who played the premiere in January 1877, with Fauré at the piano. “In this Sonata you can find everything to tempt a gourmet: new forms, excellent modulations, unusual tone colors, and the use of unexpected rhythms,” Saint-Saëns’ wrote. “And a magic floats above everything, encompassing the whole work, causing the crowd of usual listeners to accept the unimagined audacity as something quite normal. With this work Monsieur Fauré takes his place among the masters.”
That magic is quite apparent in moments such as the transition from the development section to the rapturous recapitulation in the opening movement, a songful sonata form with its lyrical freshness subtly supported by contrapuntal give-and-take. The second movement is a poignant instrumental ballad begun in D minor and closing in D major, which also makes enthralling use of counterpoint in the way the two inter-related themes entwine together. The vivacious scherzo, a sort of brilliant French hoedown, revels in sonority as much as rhythmic byplay and structural inspiration, and the finale goes beyond consummation and summation with verve and nerve.
— John Henken