Composer: Claude Debussy (b. 1862 - d. 1918)
Performance date: 03/07/2018
Venue: Bantry Library
Composition Year: 1915
Recording Engineer: Tom Norton, RTÉ
Instrumentation: vc, pf
Nathalia Milstein -
Andreas Brantelid - [cello]
Claude Debussy [1862-1918]
Sonata for Cello and Piano 
The outbreak of the Great War had a numbing effect on Debussy, who wrote nothing for nine months. However the three months from mid-July 1915 were probably the most productive of his entire life. He completed the two-piano pieces En blanc et noir and composed the two Books of Études at the same time as the Cello Sonata, finishing up with the glorious Sonata for flute, harp and viola. The two Sonatas were part of a grand plan to compose a set of six sonatas for different instruments of which he only completed the first three, the next being the Violin Sonata. The others in the project were for oboe, horn and harpsichord; trumpet, clarinet, bassoon and piano; and finally for an ensemble of all the instruments used in the previous five sonatas together with the gracious assistance of a double-bass. Tom Adès composed a work for the same instruments as the first of these unfinished sonatas as a homage to Debussy, which we featured in the 2000 Festival.
Some idea of the hostility that Debussy encountered can be gleaned from this note that Saint-Saëns sent to Fauré: I suggest you look at the pieces for 2 pianos called Noir et Blanc which M.Debussy has just published. It’s unbelievable and we must at all costs bar the door of the Institut against a man capable of such atrocities; they’re fit to stand beside Cubist paintings. The Cello Sonata probably upset the venerable composer, born in the lifetime of Cherubini, every bit as much. The Sonata is famous for its employment of timbre as a structural agent, in particular its use of pizzicato. In the first movement the cello plays arco throughout, in the second movement nearly half the bars include pizzicato and in the finale about a quarter. This vision of the cello as a giant bass guitar moves it decisively away from its nineteenth-century legato inheritance.
The opening bars make it clear that the piano, Debussy’s instrument, is not going to go along with the idea of just being an accompanist. This Prologue is mostly concerned with the main theme, which the cello explores in some detail though without any sense of linear development. There is a brief central section with an increase in tempo before the two instruments return to their languid explorations. Despite the discussion above, the cellist gets plenty of opportunity to display his expressive talents. The Serenade hails from the guitar-at-the-window tradition but the effects are witty rather than romantic and any attempt at romance is immediately and mercilessly mocked. Debussy originally dubbed the work Pierrot angry at the moon and this movement clearly fits that title. The Finale enters without a break with the first real theme in the so-called sonata but it quickly runs into the sort of problems that would have upset Saint-Saëns but will hardly worry a modern audience. In all it is a cheekily challenging work full of delightful incidents and some deliciously understated music.
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