Success came very late to the Belgian-born composer César Franck (1822-90), and arguably not entirely until after his death. His appearance was neither that of an unruly genius like Beethoven, much though he admired and sometimes emulated that composer; nor a suave man of the salon such as Fauré. Rather, he appeared a befuddled professor of the organ, often seen out in the streets in Paris wearing a too short pair of trousers and an overcoat too large for him, absent-mindedly grimacing as he hurried either to the Conservatoire where he taught organ, or to Sainte-Clotilde where he regularly played. He took innocent delight in hearing his own music performed, even when the musicians and audiences were either hostile or simply bemused.
It was only when he was approaching his sixtieth birthday that he began to compose the several works for which he remains most widely known and loved. These include La Chasseur maudit (1882), the Symphonic Variations (1886), his multi-movement symphonic poem Psyché (1886-88), and his Violin Sonata, composed in 1886 as a wedding present for the 31-year-old violinist Eugène Ysaÿe (1858-1931). Franck arranged for this to be delivered to Ysaÿe on the morning of his wedding, and the violinist, after a hasty rehearsal with the pianist Marie-Léontine Bordes-Pène, performed the work to his wedding guests.
The Sonata has been described – by the late Professor David Brown, amongst others – as a parable about marriage (Franck himself married in 1848, climbing over the barricades of the Parisian rebels in order to reach the church). Broadly, the thesis goes, the four movements successively portray blossoming love; strife; dialogue and reconciliation; then finally harmonious marriage, symbolized by violin and piano playing the same music in canon, with the piano taking the lead. Marcel Proust may well have been inspired by the third movement of Franck’s Sonata, when he described Swann’s perception of the dialogue between piano and violin in the Sonata by the fictitious Vinteuil: “At first the piano complained alone, like a bird deserted by its mate; the violin heard and answered it, as from a neighbouring tree. It was as at a very beginning of the world, as if as yet there were none but these two upon the earth, or rather in this world closed against all the rest, so fashioned by the logic of its creator than in it there should never be any but themselves; the world of this sonata.”
Some 42 years earlier, when in his early twenties, Franck composed a short but touching movement for violin and piano, the Andantino Quietoso. This was written for himself to perform as a pianist with his young violinist brother, Joseph. A possible model for the work is Schubert’s Nocturne for piano trio, written in the same key. Franck dedicated his work to the Count of Montendre, one of several aristocratic patrons who had supported the Franck brothers when they were embarking on a performing career.
One great if unexpected admirer of Franck’s Violin Sonata – of its first movement in particular – was Maurice Ravel (1875-1937). Franck’s influence appears fleetingly in the one movement Ravel composed of a prospective Violin Sonata, when aged 22, in 1897. However the Sonata he composed in his maturity in 1923-27, the G major (known as “No. 2” since 1975 with the publication of Ravel’s earlier Sonata), is stylistically quite removed from the Franck. Certainly post-First World War Europe was a very different world – more brittle and far less voluptuous in sensibility (though still sexually charged) than had been the previous three decades. It was an era soaked with jazz, and which also – encouraged by Diaghilev of the Ballets Russes – affected a taste, even if with self-conscious irony, for the pre-Romantic rococo world of neo-classicism.
Ravel had originally intended the Sonata for a close friend, the violinist Hélène Jourdan-Morhange; unfortunately her increasingly crippling rheumatism prematurely ended her performing career. Possibly this, as well as a bout of depression on Ravel’s part, hindered the Sonata’s composition. Ravel wrote at least one alternative version of the finale which, though much admired by those of his friends and colleagues he showed it to, he finally burned and replaced with a “Perpetuum mobile” which – though “not so good” as music – fitted more appropriately with the preceding two movements.
In the opening Allegretto there is a spiky quality to the dialogue between piano and violin, and yet a sense of tender resignation as in the final pages of that movement piano and violin finally co-exist in parallel rather than in harmonious union. “Blues” is Ravel’s tribute to a style of music he professed to like “far more than grand opera”. Indeed, he had demonstrated his relish for American musical culture in his almost contemporary opera L’enfant et les sortilèges, which paid tribute to what he called “the spirit of American musical comedy”. Yet in “Blues” there is, one senses, something more bitter in this piece with its “implacable” rhythms: indeed, the biographer Roger Nichols has suggested that Ravel’s “Blues” contains a repressed or stylized anguish, which was more nakedly expressed in the anti-colonial “Aoua!” of his Chansons madécasses composed 1925-26. The Sonata’s final “Perpetuum mobile” brilliantly combines all these elements – the neo-classical toccata style with blues-inflected melodies – in an almost carefree display of virtuosity.
The almost percussive dotted-rhythmic accompaniment of the Habanera, one of Spain’s best-known dances, is particularly well known through its use in Bizet’s Carmen as the basis of the heroine’s opening aria. Given Ravel’s attraction to Spanish music (he himself being half Basque) and the many Spanish-inspired works he composed, it is not surprising to find one of his earliest characteristic compositions was the ‘Habanera’ movement of his two-movement Sites auriculaires, which he composed aged 20 in 1895. So quintessentially Ravelian was its style that he later orchestrated it and made that Habanera the penultimate movement of Rapsodie espagnole, composed in 1907. It was in that same year that he composed a Vocalise-étude en forme de habanera to a commission by the Paris Conservatoire voice teacher A.L. Hettich: this was just one of a series of studies written by contemporary composers for Hettich to use in his classes. Ravel’s sultry vocalise was soon arranged for various alternative instruments, including violin. Here we hear the arrangement by Ravel’s near contemporary Georges Catherine (1872-1958), a prominent violin pedagogue who played with the orchestra of the Paris Opera.
Sophia Rosa ends her recital with a work by the dedicatee of Franck’s Sonata, Ysaÿe. Some months after the birth of his fourth child, Antoine, on 11 April 1894, the Belgian violinist toured the United States. During a stop at Niagara Falls, he wrote to his wife, Louise: “Tears come to my eyes at the thought of Antoine…precious mite…how I am longing to take him in my arms…” Six years later, while touring Dresden, Munich and Copenhagen, Antoine was very much on his mind as the six-year-old boy was seriously ill. Anxiously awaiting news, Ysaÿe composed Rêve d’enfant, dedicating the work to “À mon p’tit Antoine”. Though originally written for violin and small orchestra, Ysaÿe published a version for violin and piano in 1901.
© Daniel Jaffé