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24 May 2018

Debussy 100 - honouring the missing sonatas

Lyle Chan Image: Lyle Chan  

Lyle Chan writes about his new series of Sonatas, inspired by Debussy's unfinished sonata series, a project interrupted by the composer's death in 1918. Chan's works are performed as part of ANAM's Debussy100 concert series over the year, with the next concert on 29 June featuring the premiere of his Sonata No. 6, led by pianist Ian Munro. This article was originally published, in a slightly shorter version, in ANAM's Music Makers magazine.

Anyone seeing a score of a Debussy sonata will be intrigued by the cover page. The large title is Six sonates pour divers instruments - six sonatas for various instruments. Only the subtitles identify the instruments for individual sonatas: 'La première pour Violoncelle et Piano' (The First for Cello and Piano), 'La Deuxième…', and so on.

When I acquired my copy of the Violin Sonata as a student, I was exhilarated to think there might be six sonatas in total, not just the three that I knew - only to be disappointed to find out that Debussy in fact didn't complete the project. He died, a young 56, and his publisher Jacques Durand retained the full title on the published editions in honour of his friend.

This year being the centenary of Debussy's death, it seemed the right time to think about a realisation of his incomplete final project. This one has waited for 100 years, despite how fascinated we music lovers are by incomplete last works: we perform them constantly - Berg's Lulu and Mahler's 10th symphony come to mind, not to mention Mozart's Requiem and Puccini's Turandot.

But the case of Debussy's last project is unique. There are no sketches whatsoever, not a single note, of the missing three sonatas. Nevertheless, he had set out a complete instrumentation list for each sonata1. It was found on a sheet of paper with the manuscript of his Violin Sonata. He also described the works in a letter to the conductor Bernardino Molinari.

Debussy must have begun with the master list of 13 instruments for Sonata No. 6 ('a sonata in the form of a concerto', he wrote), then creatively distributed the instruments amongst Sonatas nos 1-5 without any overlap, except for his beloved piano.

The inclusion of harpsichord is telling. Debussy's music and outlook was changed by World War I. The German occupation of his country made him nationalistic, and his thoughts turned to what needed saving of French heritage. He expressed a nostalgia for Couperin and Rameau, 'our old harpsichordists who produced real music in abundance'.

Moreover, I see the grouping of six sonatas to be a very Baroque ideal. Due to the war, there was no access to standard editions, so Durand commissioned new editions of Bach (and Chopin) from Debussy. 'Never edit Bach's violin and keyboard sonatas on a rainy Sunday', Debussy complained good-naturedly to Durand about the work, 'I've just finished revising them, and it's raining inside of me'2. In the diverse instrumentation of the six sonatas, I hear the equally diverse and radical Six Brandenburg Concertos, all with different instrumentations - like Debussy's. Until I spotted this, I was puzzled by Debussy's statement that Sonata No. 6 would take the form of a concerto - now I know what he meant: a concerto grosso like the Brandenburgs.

And could Debussy have had a (hidden) format for his cycle of six sonatas? They seem to alternate between conventional and unconventional instrumentation. Nos 1, 3 and 5 are for 'normal' groupings of instruments, whereas nos 2, 4 and 6 raise eyebrows. It's easy to forget that the combination of flute, viola and harp (No. 2) was an innovation, since Debussy's masterpiece is now so frequently performed. But that combination is no less audacious than a trio of oboe, French horn and harpsichord (No. 4), just more familiar nowadays. Both mixtures demonstrate Debussy to be the master of sonority - as does No. 6, which seems like a conventional small orchestra (what we today call a 'sinfonietta') until you see the curious combination of harp, harpsichord and piano.

The Cello Sonata (No. 1) and Violin Sonata (No. 3) are in familiar genres of course. But so, too, is in its way Sonata No. 5. While unusual for 1915, it is strikingly Baroque in combining trumpet, woodwinds and keyboard - with precedents in, once again, the Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 and even earlier sonatas of Albinoni and Telemann, though Debussy may not have known those. He definitely would have known the use of trumpet in chamber music by his biggest detractor, Saint-Saëns.

My sonatas are not based on Debussy's style(s) but are an extension of his aesthetic. They deal with the same issues, such as transformation of the past, the use of obsolete forms made new, the overt and covert use of quotation, only these are versions of those musical issues 100 years later.

What of all the non-musical things occupying Debussy at the end of his life? The war was destroying and damaging monuments like the Reims Cathedral. Paris had bad shortages of food - Debussy even composed a piano piece to pay his coal dealer. He wrote his Sonatas knowing he was dying of cancer. It's hard for my Sonatas to stay immune to all this.

All my sonatas follow Debussy's three-movement format. As I write this, I am engulfed in the tides of No. 4, having dispatched Nos 5 and 6.

In No. 5, the first movement is serious, sometimes grim, though with outbursts of happiness. (In describing his own Violin Sonata, he referred to 'the very human contradictions' of 'tumultuous joy'). By contrast, I have a playful finale, remembering the Debussy of acerbic wit. Here, I treat him as naughtily as he treated Wagner….

In between is a slow movement, perhaps the emotional core of all three new sonatas. It's a reminder that the Six Sonates project was first and foremost an expression of ardour. This was the other thing that struck me all those years ago when I got my Violin Sonata - the dedication. 'These sonatas are offered in homage to Emma Debussy (p.m.). Your husband, Claude.' I learned that p.m. was his nickname for her, 'petite mienne' (my little). In the end, the six sonatas are a love letter. I owe it to him to keep that spirit.

In No. 6, I follow Debussy's example, looking to the past for any beauty left behind in the march of time, but I take advantage of the fact that my past is Debussy's future. If only the admirer of Stravinsky had lived long enough to see his dear friend become one of the century's most celebrated musicians. If only the composer of Golliwog's Cakewalk had lived long enough to hear the flowering of jazz. Sonata No. 6 contains my most overt reference to the Brandenburg Concertos, but, I assure you, not in any expected way. I finish with a coda where the 13 instruments are suddenly distilled to only the five that Debussy wrote his sonatas for, and the language becomes one Debussy would have known.

I'd like to think Debussy would have approved of a project like this premiering in Australia. Debussy was a very national composer (the sonatas were signed 'musicien français') who enjoyed great international success. Two of these works - the Cello Sonata and Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp - were premiered not in his home city of Paris but in London and Boston. He might give us his blessing.

Debussy100 project is presented in partnership with ABC Classic FM. Lyle Chan's commissioned works for the Debussy100 project have been assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council for the Arts.

AMC resources

Lyle Chan - AMC profile

Event and ticket details 29 June (ANAM, South Melbourne Town Hall, 7:30pm) with Lyle Chan's Sonata No. 6, led by Ian Munro.

Event and ticket details 21 September (ANAM, South Melbourne Town Hall, 7:30pm) with Chan's Sonata No. 4, led by Roy Howat.


1) Six Sonates Pour Divers Instruments
No. 1 - for Cello and Piano (published as 'La Première pour Violoncelle et Piano')
No. 2 - for Flute, Viola and Harp ('La Deuxième pour Flûte, Alto et Harpe')
No. 3 - for Violin and Piano ('La Troisième pour Violon et Piano')
No. 4 - for Oboe, French Horn and Harpsichord
No. 5 - for Trumpet, Clarinet, Bassoon and Piano
No. 6 - for all the instruments, 'with the gracious assistance of the double bass'

2) Debussy's letter to Durand on 15 April 1917: 'Ne corrigez jamais les Sonates pour violin et piano de J. S. Bach un Dimanche où il pleut…! je viens de terminer la révision (!) des susnommée et, c'est la pluie à l'intérieur…'.

Further links

ANAM - Debussy 100 - details of the concert series that continues until October 2018

Subjects discussed by this article:


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