Monday, September 3, 2012

César Franck Violin Sonata

Once upon a time one of my friends, succumbing to a brief spell of melodrama, announced to a circle of us gathered around him that he didn't believe in love. I wasn't sure whether this was supposed to shock us, or intrigue us, or both, as this opinion is widespread and commonplace among people his age. Often they are either cynical about the nature of love, or cannot comprehend how you can presume to care about another without having at least some amount of selfishness; much more interesting, and considerably less intimidating, is to break it down into its biological components to make it more approachable. Attempting to talk about love by referring to a work of art such as Anna Karenina or The Red and The Black is old hat; better not to try.

We are of course talking about romantic passion, that most well-known yet least understood of all the different shades of love. Far from it that I should try to attempt to define it here; however, I can't help but be puzzled as to why anyone should question whether or not it exists, when it is in plain sight all around, if we have eyes to see. And possibly the best example I can point to is a piece of music: the Franck Violin Sonata.

Yesterday I had the opportunity to hear this piece live. My high school piano teacher and a violin professor at the Jacobs School were about to go on tour, and had this piece as part of the program, in addition to sonatas by Mozart and Stravinsky; they wanted to give it a run-through in one of the empty recital halls, and I was invited to a private performance. Of course I said yes; although I must have listened to recordings of this piece dozens of times, nothing beats the real thing. I sat back, relaxed, and began to listen.

Those mysterious, sparse, magical opening chords; reader, there is nothing that will send a greater chill down your spine, nothing that will disarm you so completely, as those first few notes. And then, as the violin enters with her lilting theme, you become aware that this is more than a piece of music; it's a story about two souls wandering; then catching sight of each other; and then realizing, with a resounding dominant chord - the universal language of yearning - that they have found each other at last. And who has not felt this way? Even with all of the false starts, the inevitable disappointments, the tragic misunderstandings, the whirlwinds of passion that surround the rest of the piece and portray our own relationships; even with all of this, who on earth has never felt this way?

Much could be said about the other movements, but here I will only focus on the last; for it is the most important by far, and both validates and affirms everything that has come before it. The opening canon - possibly the finest example of this style of counterpoint - is a duet of the utmost tenderness, and proves why this sonata is so beloved and highly regarded. The middle section is stormy and full of pathos, transforming the opening themes until they are almost unrecognizable; but the storm clears, the lovers are reunited, and both rush to an exuberant conclusion.

I leave you with one of the supreme achievements of chamber music. I hope that you will find the time to listen to it at least once through, from beginning to end; and then come back later and listen to it time and again throughout your life, until it becomes a part of your emotional world. Enjoy.

(P.S. This piece is also hard as fuck to play; much respect for those of you who have performed it.)

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