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Sonata for flute, viola and harp

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1. Pastorale : Lento, dolce rubato – 2. Interlude : Tempo di Minuetto – 3. Final : Allegro moderato ma risoluto

On 6 October 1915 Debussy informed Jacques Durand, his publisher, that he had completed his Sonata for flute, viola and harp, “in the old form, so versatile (without the grandiloquence of modern sonatas)”. Dedicated to his wife, Emma, the work was presented first at a private concert in Boston, Massachusetts (7 November 1916), then at Durand’s home (with Darius Milhaud, viola), before receiving its public première on 2 February 1917 at London’s Aeolian Hall, played by Albert Fransella (flute), H. Waldo Warner (viola) and Miriam Timothy (harp). From the outset, this score, which Debussy wanted to be very “French”, crossed seas and oceans. In referring to the national tradition and a distant past, Debussy was probably trying to temper the anxiety caused by his struggle against cancer and his state of depression caused by the First World War. A letter to his friend Robert Godet reveals his nostalgia for a bygone era: “[The Sonata for flute, viola and harp] belongs to that era when I still knew something about music. It even recalls a very early Debussy, that of the Nocturnes, it seems to me.” A week later, he added: “It’s by a Debussy I no longer recognise! It’s terribly melancholy.” No doubt his judgement was influenced by his state of mind at that time, for no one else will perceive such darkness in the work. This music, sometimes shrouded in nostalgia, sometimes playful and capricious, passes with with the greatest of ease from one mood to the other. The flute and harp, so often brought together in his orchestral scores, combine with the viola to create unusual colours. Backward looking? The Interlude: Tempo di Minuetto sees its metrical structure constantly blurred, while the modal colours create a fascinating modernity.



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