Towards the end of his life – and in the full knowledge that the end was not far – Debussy planned a group of six sonatas for different instruments. He lived to complete only three, of which the Cello Sonata, the first, was written in 1915, followed by the Sonata for flute, viola, and harp, and the Violin Sonata, completed in April 1917. All of them are enigmatic in style and content, but are intended to be a recreation, at least in part, of 18th-century models. The connection is not obvious and the procedures of the sonatas are so wayward that the listener can only trust in Debussy’s instinct and catch what glimpses he or she can of the composer’s message. Phrases are short, often abrupt; shifts of tempo and mood are capricious, sometimes powerfully erupting, sometimes earthbound and impotent, always intense; the magnetism of his deeply musical personality invites our closest attention.
Debussy was appallingly depressed by the war, not just by the stalemate and the slaughter, but also by the degenerative effect it had on people, especially his friends. With his illness daily more painful, he found progress extremely difficult; the Violin Sonata took him much longer than the other two, extending from early 1916 to April 1917. It was his last completed work and the first performance (May 5, 1917) was his last concert in Paris. “I only wrote this sonata to be rid of the thing,” he wrote, “spurred on by my dear publisher. This sonata will be interesting from a documentary point of view and as an example of what may be produced by a sick man in time of war.”
The Sonata is in G major and minor, the first movement firmly in minor. Neither themes, keys, nor tempos remain established for long, particularly in the middle of the movement when a certain dreaminess invades the predominantly vigorous pulse. As the conclusion approaches, the violin’s open G becomes a more magnetic tonic and the piece ends abruptly on it.
The Intermède is all caprice and impulse, starting, it seems, right in the middle. There is an impish mood here, with sudden sentimental moments of ironic passion. G minor gradually gives way to a tranquil, wispy G major.
The Finale (in the major) gives the piano a bravura opening to which the violin responds with the first movement’s theme, although apart from some wild figuration at the end this is its only appearance in the movement. The main impulse comes from a constant surge of notes, interrupted by a kind of drunken waltz in the middle. The final build-up surely reflects Debussy’s determination not to let his energies sag, whatever his bodily weakness. As Martin Cooper has written: “there is a certain breathlessness, an inability to rise to the old flights, as of a mortally wounded bird, which has a beauty and pathos of its own.”