Sonata Quasi Una Fantasia

Sonata Quasi Una Fantasia

August 20 at 12:00 pm
First Presbyterian Church

Program Notes

François Couperin (1668-1733), today best known for his harpsichord music, was one of the first French composers to adopt the Italian trio sonata. Couperin claimed to have been inspired by Arcangelo Corelli when composing his first sonatas, which date to around 1692. At the same time, Couperin was not just an imitator but transformed the sonata via native French elements, creating an idiom he dubbed “les goûts réunis” (roughly translated, “the styles brought together”). La Sultane is probably the most unusual of Couperin’s sonatas. Not only is its title a mystery but its scoring is unorthodox. Baroque trio sonatas are usually written for two treble instruments (violins, flutes, etc.) and basso continuo (a group usually consisting of chordal instruments that improvise a harmonic accompaniment—much like a jazz pianist or guitarist would—along with melodic bass instruments). Couperin’s sonata, however, includes an extra part for a solo bass instrument, a viola da gamba, creating a quartet, which often breaks up into different groupings. The other unusual aspect of La Sultane is its form. Rather than being composed of four or five separate movements, as are most of Corelli’s sonatas, La Sultane is more like earlier Italian sonatas, containing one long movement with multiple contrasting sections. The sonata begins with a slow introduction using many poignant dissonances, followed by a fast fugal section, a triple time “tender air,” and continues with more short sections.

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) wrote his Sonate pour violon et violoncello between 1920 and 1922, dedicating it to Debussy, who had died in 1918. Ravel composed its first movement for a special issue of the journal La Revue musicale dedicated to Debussy, but he worked on the other movements for almost two years. One reason for the work’s long gestation may have been that the combination of violin and cello is usual, and it imposes on the composer the problem of creating full harmonies with only two melodic instruments. While Ravel occasionally uses double stops (where the players play harmonically on multiple strings at the same time), most of the sonata consists of contrapuntal interaction between the melodic lines of the two instruments. In composing the three subsequent movements, Ravel took what had then become a common classicizing route for composers of chamber music: adopting “cyclic thematic transformation,” a technique where elements of the opening theme(s) return throughout the entire work. In particular, the alternation between major and minor modes in the very opening figure played by the violin can be heard—in different guises—in each movement. Ravel also chose a relatively traditional order of movements: an allegro, a scherzo, a slow movement, and a lively finale. Perhaps influenced by Zoltán Kodály’s Duo for violin and cello (1914), the last movement has a Hungarian flavor heard not only in the dancy alternations between duple and triple meter but also in the prominent place of dissonant tritone harmonies.

© Don Fader, 2021