Fame came late to Gabriel Fauré. Probably the most advanced composer of his generation, he was able to write music only during summer vacations while toiling principally as a choirmaster and teacher. The great master of French chanson, Fauré sold his songs to his publisher outright for only 50 francs apiece.
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. “The sonata had more of a success this evening than I could ever have hoped for,” Fauré wrote to a friend. “Saint-Saëns said that he felt that sadness that mothers feel when they see their children are too grown up to need them any more!... Mlle. Tayau’s performance was impeccable.”
Saint-Saëns had more than that to say: “In this sonata you can find everything to tempt a gourmet: new forms, excellent modulations, unusual tone colors, and the use of unexpected rhythms,” he 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. That is a fleet but songful sonata form, opening with surging ardor for the piano alone for the first 22 bars. Its lyrical freshness is subtly supported by contrapuntal give-and-take, its expressive sweetness by technical muscle.
The second movement is a poignant insistently rocking barcarolle begun in D minor and closing in D major. This 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. Light and crisply punctuated, it shifts meter and key with the manic audacity that Saint-Saëns noted.
The finale goes beyond consummation and summation with verve and nerve. Also quite fast, it bustles charmingly in a mostly very soft world, struck by some loud flares; “dolce,” “sempre dolce,” and “dolcissimo” seem to be Fauré’s default markings.
— John Henken