César Franck: Violin Sonata in A
César Franck’s Violin Sonata in A was composed in 1886, and was offered as a wedding present for the violinist Eugène Ysaÿe. The sonata has become one of the most performed violin works in the repertoire,with it still receiving regular performances. After the wedding premiere the work received its public premiere on 16th December 1886 at the Musée Moderne de Peinture (Museum of Modern Painting) in Brussels.
The premiere nearly didn’t go to plan, however. The sonata was part of a very long programme that started in the late afternoon. The sonata was last in the programme and dusk had fallen, so the gallery the concert was in was very dark. There was no artificial light available, so it looked like the sonata could not be performed. Ysaÿe and Bordes-Pène were the performers and they decided to go ahead with the performance regardless. Three out of the four movements were played completely by memory, as by that point the whole room was enshrouded in darkness.
Alternating between slow and fast tempos, the sonata is in four movements:
- Allegretto ben moderato
- Ben moderato: Recitativo-Fantasia
- Allegretto poco mosso
All four movements are rich in harmonic language and are largely based around traditional classical structures. The movements are linked together through melodic kernels that Franck shares between the violin and piano. This makes the work cyclical, as the themes carry through from start to finish. Vincent d’Indy described the work as “the first and purest model of the cyclical use of themes in sonata form. It’s a true musical monument.”
The gentle rocking of the opening movement quickly establishes the thematic core of the entire work. The original score for this movement was much slower, however Franck changed it to be slightly faster after he heard the premiere in the museum. The rich tones of the violin and piano blend together to create a romantic feel to this work. Franck’s use of meter is also interesting in this movement. Starting with a lilting 9/8, the work fluctuates to create a real sense of movement, which adds to the atmosphere of the music.
The tumultuous second movement highlights the technical demands required from both the violin and piano. The fast scalic runs, aggressive bowing style and Franck’s contrapuntal writing all emphasise the newly-developed main theme. A slower middle section balances the tempo out, before another passionate swell between the instruments as the music builds to a stormy climax.
This mysterious movement is all based on its improvisatory nature. The expression bursts through, but then is quickly snatched away before being built up again. The minor melodies shine through the suspensions held by the piano, creating colourful dissonances. The spontaneous feeling of this movement is carried from the start to the end.
Starting as a canon between the two instruments, this sweet opening is only further emphasised by the passionate exchanges of melody and the high register that the violin is playing in. The music builds throughout the movement, which leads to a triumphant finale. The vigorous and celebratory final bars link all the movements together, whilst also displaying some of Franck’s most dynamic and exciting writing. The movement has been described as “a magnificent example of canonic writing, simple, majestic and irresistible in its ample, beautifully wrought proportions.”
Now one of the most popular violin sonatas in the repertoire, the work is one of the most performed around the world. It is one of Franck’s most famous works, with many of his other works receiving very little acclaim. A fantastic work that will surely get many more performances.