Debussy's Sonata for violin and piano, third in a projected series of six chamber sonatas, was the last work the composer completed before his death in 1918. Progress on the sonata caused Debussy a great deal of frustration; in the end, he felt that it never really came together the way he had originally intended. Nevertheless, the work remains a powerful, forward-looking effort that manages to fuse elements of mainstream concert tradition with a wholehearted affinity for gypsy violin playing.
The sonata unfolds in three movements: Allegro vivo, Intermède (Fantasque et léger), and Finale (Très animé). A broadly melodic flavor informs the first movement, enough so that Debussy clearly felt no need to include the separate slow movement typical of traditional sonatas. Indeed, the extremely legato gestures, frequent hemiolas, and generally long note values belie the movement's Allegro vivo indication, which, rather than reflecting the surface detail of the music, seems calculated to prompt the performers to provide a constant undercurrent of urgency. More active are the piano's arpeggio figurations as the music moves through several keys in preparation for the reprise of the opening material; even these, however, are marked pianissimo.
Of the three movements the Intermède is the most "fantastic," moving with ease between music marked scherzando and that of a more improvisatory nature. A wonderful chromatic melody, marked "expressif et sans rigueur," enters midway through the movement and is repeated just before the return of the opening material (now recast in a fuller, less rhapsodic fashion). A burst of energy from the violin is quickly extinguished as the movement dies away into nothingness.
Debussy had the most difficulty with the sonata's final movement. The opening theme of the first movement returns in the violin, accompanied by the piano in figuration that recalls the composer's Les estampes (1903). After this introductory gesture, the finale proper begins with an explosion of unaccompanied activity in the violin. This almost incessant stream of sixteenth notes is suspended on only a few occasions, each marking vital structural points; in one particuarly striking instance, the movement's main motive sounds pianissimo against a static, B flat major background. Unusually for Debussy, the work ends with a staunch fortissimo affirmation of the home key of G major.
In his last few compositions Debussy began to move away from the kind of pictorial, sensual music that had driven his work for the previous 15 or 20 years. Indeed, the Sonata for violin and piano provides a glimpse of what purely abstract musical wonders the composer might have wrought had he not succumbed to cancer at the age of 55.