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About this Piece

It is hard to say that Debussy died a happy man. His letters from 1914 until shortly before his death in March 1918, particularly those to his close friend of many years Robert Godet, despair about his health, the war, and, from 1916, a growing depression that brought into question his own abilities and accomplishments. Then, determined to fight against facility and gloom, in 1915 he wrote the 12 Études and En blanc et noir and began a planned series of six sonatas. In his final performance, he premiered the third of these, the Sonata for Violin and Piano, with Gaston Poulet in a concert of his works in Paris on May 5, 1917.

Just before that premiere, Debussy expressed great satisfaction with it, the last of his completed works. His opinion soon changed, however, and in a letter to Godet dated June 7, he wrote: “You should know, my too trusting friend, that I only wrote this Sonata to be rid of the thing, spurred on as I was by my dear publisher. You, who are able to read between the staves, will see traces of [Poe’s] The Imp of the Perverse, who encourages one to choose the very subject which should be ignored. This Sonata will be interesting from a documentary viewpoint and as an example of what may be produced by a sick man in time of war.”

The delicate opening quickly succumbs to a quixotic melodrama featuring “Spanishistic” soliloquies in the violin. The second movement is playfully macabre, with scherzo-like staccato passages in the piano underneath lyrical statements from the violin and the dovetailing of the two voices between this idea and a second theme that evolves from the metronomic staccato. The introduction to the third movement, a twinkling piano tremolo passage against the violin’s restatement as black as the night sky of the work’s first theme, is grossly incongruous with the material immediately before and after it. It stands as a reminder that despite this work’s feigned jocularity, it is the work of a man acutely aware of the pain of death. —Meg Ryan