Franck wrote his Violin Sonata in 1886 as a wedding present for the great Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe. The first movement is a lilting allegretto in 9/8, whose main theme consists of a chain of thirds announced by the violin after a set of introductory piano chords. It is lyrical and wistful, but A major, the tonic key of the movement (and the work) is not sounded until the eighth bar, then only on a weak beat, and immediately ‘cancelled out’ by chromatic notes. The first climax – on piano with a melody in octaves – is in E major; only on its second statement near the end is it emphatically, but briefly, in the tonic A.
In D minor, the second movement is the sonata- allegro of the work, with piano figurations that resemble Liszt at his most Byronic, and a surging, tightly chromatic melody passed from the piano to the violin’s lowest register. The more serene second theme, played by the violin over slow- moving chords on the piano, is derived from the first movement’s main theme – an example of Franck’s principle of ‘cyclical form’, developed from Liszt’s idea of thematic transformation. The development section, in contrast to the turbulence of the movement’s opening, is reflective and fragmentary before the return and intensification of the allegro material.
The third movement, designated Recitativo- Fantasia, has one of Franck’s most innovative formal designs. Highly chromatic and gestural at first, this movement forms the dramatic turning point of the piece. It begins with chords in the piano and a violin melody, whose rising thirds are a transformation of the opening of the first movement; the violin’s almost-cadenza contains motifs from the second movement. In addition to another version of the chain-of -thirds idea, the Fantasia section introduces two new themes, one based on a falling three-note figure and another, on violin, of long notes against piano triplets, which will feature in the finale.
Only in the finale are we presented with diatonic melody in an unequivocal A major. This folk-
like tune is a call and response for the two instruments, like two people in absolute accord. After the yearning first movement, the turbulent second, and the occasionally disoriented form of the third, the fourth offers simple joy. There are frequent markings like cantabile (singing) and dolcissimo (most sweetly), and it may not be fanciful to hear wedding bells evoked by the scale-passages in octaves towards the end.