Day 6 – Franck Violin Sonata

Let’s stay in Paris!

One of my favourite stories about Franck’s Violin Sonata is about its very first performance in 1886. Written as a wedding present for the Belgian violinist Eugene Ysaye, the first real public outing (after the premiere at the wedding reception on a borrowed violin and upright piano) was given by Ysaye at the Musée Moderne de Peinture in Brussels. Unfortunately, the fading light of a late December afternoon made the room so gloomy and dark that it was impossible for the performers to read the music. Ysaye wasn’t too happy about this and insisted at first that the audience leave. He called for candelight and matches but this was forbidden by the museum because of the danger to the paintings. The audience were agitated and excited, eager to hear the maestro and this new work. They wanted their money’s worth and refused to budge, creating a great furore in the process. Ysaye, no doubt rather exasperated, finally struck his bow on the music stand, cried out, (in French), “let’s just get on with it” and proceeded to perform the entire sonata from memory in complete darkness.

What a magical evening that must have been!

The silhouette of Ysaye, that wonderful atmosphere and the first ever outing of a piece that nearly 150 years later is still a revered monument of the violin repertory. Written in Franck’s maturity, the work is a beautiful balance between depth of emotion and intellect. Spanning across all four movements, Franck carves out a structure of miniature detail, of subtle poetry and of ever-evolving motifs, and an infinite spectrum of changing colours.

Here is a small segment from the first movement. Even with the absence of the piano I like to imagine Franck huddled up in the organ loft of Sainte-Clothilde, scribbling away and looking out across at the vastness of the Parisian skyline.

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