A genuine prodigy of wide-ranging talent and interests, Saint-Saëns composed in almost every form and medium then imaginable. His First Violin Sonata dates from 1885, after Saint-Saëns had already composed his three violin concertos. It was also the year before his popular “Organ” Symphony in C minor, a work with which it shares many characteristics. In this Sonata (as in the “Organ” Symphony) Saint-Saëns took the standard four movements, such as are found in Beethoven’s Sonata No. 7, merged them into two pairs, and unified the whole with cyclic thematic recurrences. (And like Beethoven, Saint-Saëns played the piano part in the premiere of his Sonata.)
The opening Allegro half of the first movement is a poised sonata form, the second theme of which – first heard in the violin against rustling arpeggios in the piano – is the one that recurs most frequently and conspicuously. (This Sonata, and this second theme particularly, was a favorite of Marcel Proust and inspired the fictive sonata by Vinteuil in À la recherche du Temps perdu.) A quiet interlude connects this with a dreamy song, serving as the Sonata’s slow movement. The two parts of the second movement form the scherzo (here a fleet waltz) and a brilliantly virtuosic rondo finale.
John Henken is Director of Publication for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.