The marriage of violinist Eugène Ysaÿe and Louise Bourdeau in 1886 inspired Franck’s lone Violin Sonata. Like Franck, Ysaÿe (1858-1931) was born in Liège. A composer himself, he became a champion of the newest French music. (In addition to Franck’s Sonata, the Concerto and Poème by Chausson and Debussy’s String Quartet are dedicated to him.) Although 64 years old in 1886, Franck was still known primarily as an organist, at the important church St. Clotilde and the lavish public arts palace the Trocadéro as well as professor of organ at the Conservatory. The recognition that he gained in the last years of his life, and then increasingly afterwards, was due in large part to the fervent missionary work of supporters such as Ysaÿe. The violinist played Franck’s Sonata many times on his wide-ranging tours, telling his listeners that he played it “con amore” since it was a wedding present.
Franck originally intended the opening movement to be slow and reflective, but Ysaÿe persuaded him that it worked best at a quicker tempo, so Franck marked it Allegretto, though with the qualifier “ben moderato.” The movement juxtaposes rather than develops two themes, the first given almost exclusively to the violin, the second to the piano. These themes, particularly the violin’s, will return in the following movements, a sort of cyclical recontextualizing that Franck picked up from Liszt.
The second movement is a dramatic scherzo in D minor, opening as a turbulent piano toccata, then with a surging, offbeat violin line laid over it. There are lyrical or pensive interludes, working like trio sections, but the roiling toccata always reasserts itself, ending with a final sweep to D-major triumph.
The voice-led chromaticism that Franck absorbed from Wagner is apparent in the piano’s almost Tristanesque introduction to the third movement, a Recitativo-Fantasia. This introduction is also a reference to the opening of the Sonata, and much of this free-form movement is devoted to reflection on the previous movements. As the heading of the movement clearly indicates, there is a pronounced personality split midway through, as the improvisatory Recitativo yields to the more insistently directed Fantasia, which picks up some of the rumbling power of the second movement. The violin has a freshly configured dramatic theme in this section, which will come back in the finale.
That finale begins in a state of pure lyric grace, with a lovely optimistic theme that is played in canon, the violin following the piano’s lead a bar later. This is developed against stormier energies from the second movement in a section that shifts from five flats to six sharps and back. The opening theme of the movement sneaks back into A major with all of its original sweetness – and in canon again – before swelling into exultant joy.