Program Notes

By Jason Sundram

Violin Sonata in A major (1886)

Program Notes Home

Cesar Franck (December 10, 1822–November 8, 1890)

  1. Allegretto ben moderato
  2. Allegro
  3. Ben moderato
  4. Allegretto poco mosso

Dedicated to violinist Eugene Ysaye

Franck was looked down upon by Brahms, who neglected even to glance at a score that Franck sent to him from Paris. Born in Belgium, Franck moved to France; there he became the dominant force in music, accruing a large group of ardent devotees. Unlike Brahms or Beethoven (or Wagner, for that matter), Franck was a saintly man, always kind in manner and speech. To increase the gulf separating him from Brahms and Beethoven, Franck, disinterested in fame and fortune, managed to get married (but it wasn’t a happy marriage). An unsuccesful—though virtuoso—pianist, it wasn’t until Franck began to play the organ at age 30, improvising for hours on the organ of Ste. Clothilde, that he found his vocation. Even then, he was a late bloomer; all of his best known music was written after he was 53 years old.

Franck’s compositional style favors frequent modulations, and, like Liszt’s B minor Sonata, he develops the initial melodic material throughout the piece. His pieces are sensuous, yet spiritual and serene. He promised Wagner’s wife, Cosima, a violin sonata in 1859, but put it off. Finally, the famed Ysa˙e, a fellow Belgian (born in Franck’s hometown), persuaded Franck to write a violin sonata in honor of Ysa˙e’s wedding. The 1886 premiere took place in an art gallery in Brussels. The room was so dark that Ysa˙e was forced to play the sonata largely from memory!

The opening movement is in sonata form, but leaves out the development section, to avoid conflict. It is harmonious and reflective. The piece develops less by thematic opposition than by a gradual rising and falling of tension. It uses what Franck referred to as “cyclic” development: all the movements share common thematic threads. The second movement is turbulent, but subsides to a foreboding calm. The third movement is somewhat amorphous; Franck called it a “recitative-fantasia.” The Finale opens with a sunny theme, in perfect canon! There is a recapitulation of sorts, and the ending is fervent; a proclamation of love for the married couple.