Violin Sonata

César Franck

Violin Sonata in A major

FWV8, M8

Recommended recording

Curated by Guy Jones, Head of Curation

About this work

Aside from the Symphony in D minor, which has become a staple of the concert hall, the Violin Sonata (1886) is Franck's best-known work, and rightly so: It is a superb synthesis of Franck's own uniquely rich harmonic language and thematic cyclicism and the Viennese Classical tradition that he came to hold so dear in the later stages of his career.

The Sonata was composed as a wedding present for the famous Belgian violinist Eugene Ysaÿe, who performed it at his matrimonial celebrations on September 26, 1886. The work's popularity is suggested by the number and variety of arrangements that were eventually made, including versions for flute, cello, viola, and even tuba; of these, however, only the arrangement for cello received the composer's stamp of approval.

The Sonata begins not with a fiery quick movement, but rather with a poetic Allegretto moderato in 9/8 time. After a tentative opening gesture, the music builds to a compelling fortissimo climax. As the violin rejoins the discourse, the drama ebbs to a dolcissimo reprise of the opening. Another climax, this time moving toward the tonic A major, follows, and the movement ends with a brief codetta.

The tender relief of the first movement's conclusion is extremely short-lived, however, as a low sixteenth note rumbling in the piano soon overflows into a full-blooded Allegro. The syncopated main tune is taken over by the violin, and things settle down just long enough for a quasi lento interlude and some fragmented episodic reconstructions of the movement's three main motivic strands. A recapitulation, with suitable harmonic reorganization of the material, follows, and the coda, initially misterioso but increasingly tumultuous, provides an electrifying finish.

The third movement, Recitativo-Fantasia, is in many ways the most immediately striking in the Sonata. The piano makes an introductory gesture that draws on the same rising-third gesture that provided the first movement's main theme, to which the violin responds unaccompanied. The tranquil, almost other-worldly middle section introduces the two striving themes, with characteristic triplet-rhythm accompaniment, that will return in glorious attire in the Finale.

The total defeat that seems to mark the conclusion of the third movement is immediately dispelled by the happy opening of the Finale. Although the initial melody, treated in exact canonic imitation between the instruments, is original to the last movement, the first of the two melodies from the central section of the third movement also makes a return. After an appropriate mingling of these ideas -- and a colorful interlude built on a subsidiary motive from the opening movement -- a tremendous buildup climaxes in the passionate fortissimo return of the second of the two third-movement themes and is immediately repeated a whole step higher. As the dam bursts the opening canonic theme returns once more to bring the work to a cheerful close.