Composed over 1907-1908, Roussel's First Violin Sonata is an aural conspectus of the turning point at which he arrived as he completed his studies chez the Schola Cantorum. Though he would remain an instructor of counterpoint at the Schola -- a post held since 1902 -- until 1914, he came to the end of the school's staggeringly comprehensive course in 1908, married, embarked with his bride on a honeymoon voyage that took them to India and Ceylon and cast a wider stylistic net. A flirtation with Impressionism, audible in his Symphony No. 1, "Le Poème de la forêt," completed in 1906 deepens into the atmospheric richness of his incidental music for Georges Jean-Aubry's Symbolist drama Le Marchand de sable qui passe (1908). Roussel forecast the crisp, propulsive manner of his mature works in the engaging Divertissement for piano and winds in 1906. Meanwhile, as founder of the Schola, the school's director, and one of the most influential musicians of his era, d'Indy roiled the aesthetic waters with his outspokenly relentless polemics against Impressionism, though he was sufficiently generous to recognize Roussel's genius despite the latter's stylistic adventures. The usual two camps inevitably formed, and every new work or new composer was judged less on the quality of his music than on what it was critically adjudged to show regarding aesthetic allegiance. Dedicated to d'Indy, Roussel's First Violin Sonata is curiously valedictory, as if summing up what he had both learned and inherited from the Schola. The first movement opens with a languorous serenity -- as does d'Indy's own Violin Sonata (1903-1904) -- reminiscent of the Violin Sonata of d'Indy's master, César Franck, from two decades before. With the second theme (in a textbook unfolding of sonata-allegro form), however, rhythmic animation forecasts the mature Roussel. Commentators have been quick to seize upon Roussel's designation of the sonata -- "for piano and violin," reversing the usual order -- as indicative of an ambition to advance a more dialogically cogent balance in which the piano seldom merely accompanies but takes a major role. The upshot, however, is heavy, an effusively prolix hodgepodge whose confused geste is not saved by adherence to formal guidelines nor by observance of d'Indy's "cyclical" construction -- the repetition of themes from previous movements -- which clots the second movement Scherzo's vivacity and burdens the hectic effervescence of the Finale. The sonata's premiere was given at a Salon d'Automne concert on October 9, 1908, with Armand Parent, founder of the Parent String Quartet, on violin, and Marthe Dron, piano.
Description by Adrian Corleonis
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