“Fantastic NEW (Spring 2012) Edition!”
Charles Sinden Just Flutes staff member
As is well known, Claude Debussy was able to complete only three of the six chamber sonatas that he planned to compose for different instrumental combinations. He began this large-scale project in 1915 while spending the summer in Pourville, near the Normandy coast. In July and August he composed the Sonata for Cello and Piano, followed a few weeks later by the Trio Sonata here, for flute, viola and harp.
In a letter to his publisher, Durand, Debussy reported that he had received both the printed draft of the title page that was to serve for all six sonatas and the proofs of the Cello Sonata, but that a wasp sting to his right hand had prevented him from doing any work for two days. He then continued that "my last nights were charming, nevertheless. I finished the draft of the Sonata for Flute, Oboe and Harp". A later entry in his diary read "The second [sonata] for flute, viola and harp. End". The instrumental combination mentioned in the letter, with the oboe as the third instrument of the trio instead of viola, was something that Debussy apparently considered only in passing. It in no way corresponds to his original conception of the work, contrary to what is occasionally stated in biographical literature.
Debussy handed the work to Durand in-person, for a sum of 4,000 francs - roughly £500. The world premiere took place on 7 November 1916 in Boston. According to research, Debussy was only able to hear the work for the first time himself on 10 December 1916, where the performers were Albert Manouvrier (flute), Jeanne Dallies (harp) and the young Darius Milhaud (viola). The chromatic harp was used on that occasion, but Debussy decided that it was unsuited to the task as it was cumbersome and could not match the powerful sound of the pedal harp. After the first public performance of the Sonata in Paris on 9 March 1917, this time with pedal harp, Debussy felt vindicated: "I was able to confirm once more the superiority of the pedal harp over the chromatic harp".
All three completed sonatas share a clear rejection of the Austro-German sonata tradition in favour of a French classicism. The second Sonata exemplifies this further by its unconventional combination of instruments. The trio ensemble of woodwind, string and plucked instruments was to have been continued in the third Sonata by the inclusion of a cor anglais, though it was in the end written for violin and piano.
The new and exciting sounds that resulted from combining flute, viola and harp play a considerable role in conveying the impression of a restrained melancholy. Debussy himself wrote of this music that, "it is terribly melancholic. And I don't know whether this should prompt one to laughter or tears. Perhaps both?" On another occasion he stressed its unmistakeable stylistic similarity to his own earlier compositional style of the 1890s, saying of this Sonata that "it recalls a very old Claude Debussy - the Debussy of the Nocturnes, it seems to me."
The middle work in the three late chamber music sonatas was composed in spring 1915, directly after the cello sonata (HN 633). The innovative combination of sounds – a wind instrument, a stringed instrument, and a plucked instrument – greatly contributes to the impression of restrained melancholy. Debussy himself confirmed it, saying: “It is terribly sad. And I do not know whether one should laugh or cry about it? Perhaps both at the same time?” On another occasion he emphasised the similarities with his own compositional style of the 1890s, remarking of the sonata: “It reminds me of a very old Claude Debussy – the one of the Nocturnes”.