Born Liège, Belgium, September 10, 1822; died Paris, November 8, 1890
Sonata for Cello and Piano in A major
Composed in 1886; 28 minutes
César Franck had an influence in the music world in inverse proportion to his public renown. Franck had trod a difficult path in his childhood. His Belgian father, determined to make capital on the talents of his wunderkind son, kept him on a short leash for many years. Franck’s extraordinary music talents earned him multiple prizes in composition, theory, organ and piano at the conservatories in Liège and Paris, and he achieved a bit of fame in Belgium as a teenage concert pianist. When he reached his 20s, however, he escaped his father’s domination and made a life for himself in the French capital.
Active as a renowned church organist, Franck composed operas, oratorios and solo music for piano and organ. Concertgoers of an earlier generation frequently heard his Symphonic Variations for Piano and Orchestra, but today his reputation as a composer rests principally on two chamber music works: the Piano Quintet in F minor from 1879 and the Sonata in A major for Violin and Piano, composed for the great Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe (1858–1931).
The sonata was presented to Ysaÿe as a wedding gift on the afternoon of his marriage in 1886 to Louise Bourdeau, and he spontaneously performed the work that day for their wedding guests, with Marie-Léontine Bordes-Pène at the piano. Franck’s sonata quickly acquired an international audience after Ysaÿe and Madame Bordes-Pène premiered the sonata in Brussels a few months later, in December 1886. Because of Ysaÿe’s frequent performances in following years, the sonata became widely known and admired.
Not only violinists, but also performers on many other instruments have taken Franck’s sonata into their repertoire. Transcriptions for flute, viola, double bass, tuba and saxophone are just a few—the French pianist Alfred Cortot even arranged the work as a duet for piano four-hands. The most often-heard transcription, however, is that for cello. Franck himself authorized the French cellist Jules Delsart to make a transcription, which was published in January 1888. Franck also autographed a copy of the second edition of the work, describing it as being “for violin or cello.” Because this is a large sonata, with bold, lyrical writing for the piano as well as the violin, the cello’s voice seems especially well suited as a partner in the drama. The cello is able to play the sonata in the same key, A major, with only minor adjustments, and the piano part remains unchanged.
The voices of the cello and the violin, each with a span of a little more than four octaves, overlap in their ranges—the lower two octaves of a violin cover the same tones as the upper two octaves of a cello. Given the way this sonata in the key of A major falls within the violin’s range, Steven Isserlis says, “I play straight from the violin part, and transpose it mostly down an octave,” leaving occasional passages in their original violin octave, which the cello can easily play.
Like many of Franck’s compositions, the Sonata in A major is built upon a germ of a musical idea, a motto theme, which provides structural unity by appearing in every movement. The generative musical germ of the Sonata in A major appears in the first four bars of the piece. Written in 9/8 measure, the theme rocks gently (“molto dolce”) in intervals of thirds and fourths, gradually gaining momentum toward a climax that sends the piano into a grand statement of Franck’s second theme. These two thematic elements recur in various guises throughout the sonata, which has rightly earned a permanent place in the chamber music repertoire as one of the most beloved, and challenging, sonatas for a string instrument and piano.
© 2014 Sandra Hyslop
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