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Sunday January 19 at 3:00 P.M.
An Afternoon in France
Piano Trio No.1 in F major, Op.18 – by Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921)
Sonata for Violin and Piano in G minor – by Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
Piano Trio in A minor – by Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)
By the mid nineteenth century, audiences and composers were quite fixated on opera and there were few piano trio models upon which the 28 year old Saint-Saens could base his first trio. Nonetheless,Camille Saints-Saens became inspired to write his Piano Trio in F, Op.18 in 1863, and seems to have loosely modelled it on Mendelssohn’s fine examples. Here his writing is characterized by melodic clarity and irresistible charm, with a vividness and transparency that would become equated with the French style in later decades. The main themes are introduced in the first movement (Allegro vivace) by the strings with the piano providing tremendous sonority, tonal and rhythmic support. The second movement (Andante) presents a double dotted melody, mysterious and folk-like with a second subject that twists and winds its way into the listener’s sensibility. The third movement (Scherzo) features a playful and capricious pizzicato string part off setting the piano’s steady beats. The violin and cello trade short melodic ideas throughout the fourth movement (Allegro) underscored by a sparkling, energetic piano part drawing the entire work to a close with dignity and grace.
Claude Debussy wrote his Violin and Piano Sonata in G minor, L40 in 1917, and dedicated it to his wife Emma. It was written during the shadow of WWI, the progression of a terminal cancer as well as mounting financial problems. It was the third of a cycle of 6 planned sonatas, but was destined, in fact, to be his final composition. He premiered the work on May 5, 1917 with Gaston Poulet playing the violin and Debussy himself playing piano, in what became his final public performance. This highly evocative sonata is more like a fantasy than a sonata, and is much likened to the impressionistic painters of the day, despite Debussy’s strong resistance to such comparisons, and in particular Monet whose play of light and colour across a canvas becomes more the focus than the concrete object itself. The work is written in three movements, the first (Allegro vivo) is of a deeply melancholic expression. The second (Intermede) is brighter and lighter in mood, exploiting a wide range of the violin with many colouristic effects. The third (Finale) returns some of the thematic material of the first movement in a virtuosic and insistent tumbling of ideas, imbued with gypsy fiddle flourishes. Despite working long and hard on this work, Debussy was never quite satisfied with it, and wrote in a letter to a friend that it was “an example of what a sick man can write during a war...” Nonetheless, this sonata has become one of the well loved standards of the violin chamber repertoire.
Maurice Ravel composed his Piano Trio in A minor in 1914 when he was 39 years old. The First World War broke out during his writing of it, and he hastened its completion in the hopes that he could enlist in the army and fearing it might therefore be his last musical utterance. Though his weak constitution prevented his enlistment, he did volunteer in the war first as a nurse’s aide and later as a truck driver. Against this backdrop of mounting national tension, or perhaps because of it, Ravel was inspired to write one of the most radiant masterpieces of the chamber literature. Its sonority is rich and orchestrally conceived, and indeed it is difficult to remember at times, that only 3 instruments are playing, yet he manages to communicate a personal and intimate message at the same time. The first movement (Modere) draws on a Basque dance form, and is an elegiac expression of beautiful shifting textures and colour. The title of the second movement (Pantoum) refers to a Malaysian poetry form which appears to be loosely reflected musically by its alteration of three musical themes, in rhythmic flurries of notes juxtaposed with the bell-like sonorous textures. The third movement (Passacaille) is derived from the first theme of the Pantoum and presents the slow sad steps of this old dance in a piercingly beautiful song of the heart heard first from the low register of the piano, then passed between the instruments 9 times, each time varied and building in intensity to a driving climax before dying away. The fourth movement (Final) employs violin arpeggio harmonics as a backdrop to a driving and brilliant finish.