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The Kennedy Center

Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp

About the Work

Photo for Claude Debussy Composer: Claude Debussy
© Dr. Richard E. Rodda

When the Guns of August thundered across the European Continent in 1914 to plunge the world into World War I, Claude Debussy was already showing signs of the colon cancer that was to end his life four years later. Apprehensive about his health and tormented by the military conflict, his creative production came to a virtual halt. "I should not like that work to be played before the fate of France has been decided, for she can neither laugh nor weep while so many of our men are heroically facing death," he told his publisher, Durand, about the projected performance of a new ballet to his music in London. Except for a Berceuse Héroïque written "as a tribute of homage to His Majesty King Albert I of Belgium and his soldiers," Debussy wrote no new music in 1914. At the end of the year he undertook (with little enthusiasm) the preparation of a new edition of Chopin's works to help compensate Durand for the regular advances he had been sending. The death of the composer's mother in March 1915 further deepened his depression. That same month, however, he appeared in a recital in the Salle Gaveau with the soprano Ninon Vallin, and his mood brightened somewhat during the following months. "I have a few ideas at the moment," he wrote to Durand in June, "and, although they are not worth making a fuss about, I should like to cultivate them." That summer he completed En blanc et noir for Two Pianos and the Études for Solo Piano, and projected a series of six sonatas for various instrumental combinations inspired by the old baroque school of French clavecinists. (It is indicative of the artistic temper of those troubled and uncertain years that Ravel also sought to preserve the spirit of 18th-century France in his Le Tombeau de Couperin, conceived in 1914. Debussy instructed that he was to be listed in the published scores of the Sonatas as "Claude Debussy, musicien français.") The first of the Sonatas, for Cello and Piano, was completed quickly in July and August 1915 during a holiday at Pourville, near Dieppe; the second one, for Flute, Viola (originally oboe), and Harp, was also written at Pourville before Debussy returned to Paris on October 12. Surgery in December prevented him from further work until October 1916, when he began the Sonata for Violin and Piano. A sonata for oboe, horn, and harpsichord never went beyond the planning stage; the remainder of the projected set did not get that far. The Violin Sonata, completed in 1917, was his last important work; he premiered the piece on May 5, 1917, in Paris with violinist Gaston Poulet, and played it again in September at St.-Jean-de-Luz, where he was summering. It was his final public appearance.

For the inspiration, style, and temperament of the Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp, Debussy looked back far beyond the impressionism of his earlier works to the elegance, emotional reserve and textural clarity of the music of the French baroque. In its revival of old techniques and modes of expression enfolded in 20th-century harmonic garb, the piece is one of the harbingers of the Neo-Classical movement that touched so many composers during the following decades. Indeed, with its ambiguous harmonies, austere textures and meticulously carved instrumental sonorities, it is one of Debussy's most uncompromisingly modern creations, about which the composer himself expressed some uncertainty regarding its emotional effect: "[The music is] so terribly melancholy," he wrote to his friend the Swiss journalist Robert Godet, "that I can't say whether one should laugh or cry. Perhaps both at the same time?"

The Sonata's ethereal opening movement, titled Pastorale, unfolds as a series of episodes based on themes that at first encounter seem like little more than wispy arabesques. There are, however, five fragmentary but distinct thematic entities here, which are later recapitulated in a different order to round out the movement's form: 1 and 2) two melancholy strains that introduce the flute and the viola; 3) an open-interval, drone-like motive for viola and harp; 4) a lyrical melody in the flute's lower register supported by arching arpeggios in the viola; and 5) an animated ensemble passage in an uneven meter. The motives are heard at the end of the movement in this order: 2-4-5-3-1. A quicker dance-like section occupies the middle of the movement.

Though the Interlude, a reminiscence in pastels of the durable old form of the minuet, is Debussy's most obvious tribute here to the music of the baroque, its whole-tone theme, parallel chord streams and modal harmonies plainly mark this as a product of the 20th century. The form proceeds by twice interpolating a vaguely Oriental duple-meter episode (B) into the delicate triple-meter minuet (A): A-B-A-B-A.

The Finale brilliantly grounds its apparent evanescence of expression in a carefully crafted development of its themes. Most of the movement grows from mutations of the three motives that are presented in quick succession at the outset: snapping viola pizzicatos, quicksilver falling arpeggios from the flute, and a longer viola melody anxiously juxtaposing duple and triple rhythms. As the movement nears its end, the tempo slows to admit a brief recall of the flute theme that opened the first movement before a short, animated coda closes the Sonata.