GUILLAUME LEKEU (1870-1894)
“Sonate pour piano et violon,” (1892)
Like the composer Lili Boulanger (1893-1918), Lekeu is one of the few extremely gifted composers who died too early, at the age of 24. He was considered one of Belgium’s bright young stars, but unfortunately died before he could harvest the fruits of a ripened genius. Although he was not exposed to music at a very young age, he still published his Op. 1, an Andante et Variations for violin and piano, at the age of fifteen, after alone teaching himself composition by plunging into the scores of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) and Richard Wagner (1813-1883). Lekeu’s talent impressed César Franck, who would become his teacher, mentor and close friend. Franck took the young man on a trip to Bayreuth to attend the Wagner festival. One of the operas performed there, Tristan und Isolde (1857-59), made a tremendous impact on him, resulting in a burst of creativity and encouraging a whole new level of musicality. This brought Lekeu to his quest to master different shades of feeling and plenitude. Lekeu stated “Even if it kills me, I put my very soul into my music.”
Because Lekeu shared the same belief as the Belgian violinist, Eugène Ysaye (1858-1931), that music should be what “the heart suggests, and the soul expresses,” Ysaye, regarded as “the King of the Violin,” commissioned Lekeu’s two first chamber-music works: a piano quartet and a violin sonata. Lekeu’s Sonate pour piano et violon en Sol Majeur (1892) that he claimed to have cost him “infinite pain,” was premiered in 1893, and since then never left the standard repertoire of the violin in France. It is worth noting that the title mentioned the piano before the violin, certainly to emphasize the importance of the voluptuous piano part. Although the piece was composed when Lekeu was twenty-two, and considered his masterpiece, one may feel that the composer might not have had the chance to totally find his own, unique voice.
The sonata is absolutely breathtaking; the narration of the two instruments might be felt as a dedication work to the greatest German composers and to the founder of the Franco-Belgian style, as well as a debut of Debussy’s impressionism. The influence of César Franck’s Sonata pour violon et piano en la majeur (1886) is very much implied. Like Franck’s sonata, Lekeu’s is written in cyclic form. One obvious mark of this idée fixe (a melody that is used in each movement to represent an obsessive image) is found when the theme of the first movement is literally quoted note-for-note in the denouement of the final movement. It is exactly what Franck did in his sonata with his third and fourth movements. But the genius of Lekeu shows his ability to continue and even surpass the path of the Franco-Belgian chamber-music founders by using an increased emphasis on an important compositional technique of his time, chromaticism. Coming from the Wagnerian school, this technique was the lifeblood of expressive music in the mid to late 19th century. When transferred to the Franckists, it became an additional means to achieve equilibrium and restraint, major attributes that have now long been esteemed in Franco-Belgian music.
The chromaticism is found in the first movement of the sonata, which opens with a beautiful calm statement played by the violin, accompanied by very light and sporadic piano chords suggesting moving harmony. This part also serves as a quotation to the opening of Johannes Brahms’s G-Major violin and piano sonata Op. 78 (1878-79). In order to keep his own flavor, Lekeu brings the theme into different twists and turns from its original state with the help of chromatic harmonic changes. Before leaving the maze of this first movement, the conversation between the piano and the violin arrives at a unison agreement and a victorious climax, later leading into a regretful and moving coda. This end sets the mood for the deep and touching second movement. By choosing a 7/8 meter, the first theme is continuous, as if the atmosphere is too unbearably intense to even breathe. Lekeu shifts from Brahms-like melodies, evoking lyricism towards popular songs laced with futuristic harmonies of another world. The third movement seems more traditional with its sonata form and use of counterpoint than the themes of the first two movements, which are more spontaneous with their chromatic adventures.
CLAUDE DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
“Sonate pour violon et piano,” (1917)
Not only is the violin sonata, Sonate pour violon et piano, Claude Debussy’s last work, but it is also his only work for violin. Although it is dedicated to his wife Emma, it may be acknowledged as written for Arthur Hartmann (1881-1956). Before his friendship with Hartmann started in 1908, Debussy had never considered composing for violin. After the few transcriptions of the composer’s various piano works and songs that Hartmann arranged Debussy promised the violinist to compose for him, in return, a Poème for violin and orchestra. His life ended before he could accomplish his promise.
Most of his life, Debussy stayed away from traditional forms like the symphony, the concerto or sonatas. He would write music with evocative titles such as Prélude à l’après midi d’un faune. For his violin sonata, he adapted sonata concepts to his uniquely personal expressive needs. He wrote, “I am more and more convinced that music, by its very nature, is something that cannot be cast into a traditional and fixed form. It is made up of colors and rhythms. The rest is a lot of humbug invented by frigid imbeciles riding on the backs of the Masters.” Although the piece was written while he was dying, it is animated, whimsical and flamboyant.