Despite ill health, Debussy managed sporadic bursts of productivity during his final years, and his three sonatas comprise a significant portion of this body of late work. The Sonata for Cello and Piano (1915), Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp (1915), and Sonata for Violin and Piano (1917) were the first three of a planned opus of six sonatas, never finished.
The Cello Sonata is a work rich in imagery even though it lacks the apparent extramusical allusions or inspirations common to so many Debussy pieces. All three movements – Prologue, Serenade, and Finale, the latter two joined together – have as an organizing principle the sense of collage: musical ideas, often pure sound images, are presented, only to be superseded by almost unrelated musical thoughts. Progression thus becomes a series of fleeting images, linked by a common ethos.
Anticipating modern trends in string writing, Debussy asks of the cello almost everything except long, soaring lines: pizzicato, strumming, harmonics, bowing over the fingerboard and near the bridge to produce different timbres, etc. The Serenade movement especially employs the techniques.
Most of the Sonata takes place at very soft dynamic levels, with a dream-narrative flavor. Ideas appear unpredictably, but in retrospect appear to have empowered their own coherence.
© Peter Kristian Mose