Movement 1: Modérément vite (expressif et marqué)
Movement 2: Calme, un peu lent, très soutenu
Movement 3: Vivement, avec légèreté
Movement 4: Très lent – Animé
Each of the four movements develops its ideas at length. The anxious, tormented chromaticism of the opening theme sets the tone of the first movement, in traditional sonata form. The second theme, in bass octaves, is harmonically somewhat more relaxed, although the flow of semiquavers is unimpeded. The development contains some stabbing octaves split between the hands that look ahead to the figuration of the third movement.
The gentler second movement, also in sonata form, at times recalls the central Andante of the Symphony in C. Running in parallel with the sonata structure, the figuration gradually increases in speed throughout the movement, from crotchets to sextuplet semiquavers, before the calm of the final perdendosi.
The third movement is a scherzo in ABA form, but predictably reminiscent of Beethoven rather than of Mendelssohn or Saint-Saëns. Here the pattern of alternating hands already heard in the first movement dominates the outer sections, producing brilliantly virtuosic music, in contrast with the sobriety of much of what we have heard so far. Possibly Ravel had this passage in mind when writing the Toccata of Le tombeau de Couperin in 1917. The central section is built on a much slower chromatic idea treated fugally and marked mystérieusement; Alfred Cortot in his book on French piano music remarks on its maleficent, nightmarish atmosphere—proof, if that were needed, that fugal textures do not have to be arid or academic. A brief coda contrasts the two ideas before signing off pianissimo.
In the final movement, again in sonata form, a fantasia-like section leads to the aspirational main theme. Fragments of the work’s opening idea appear inverted and the tension resolves onto a second theme, one of the most harmonically stable moments in the whole work. While d’Indy claimed this theme derived from the plainsong Pange lingua, it is probably closer to the slow second theme of Liszt’s Sonata. After a lengthy, exciting development, the reprise finally ushers in E flat major for the coda.
The work’s first performance, by Edouard Risler at the Salle Pleyel on 10 May 1901, was enthusiastically received by both public and critics. But such a wholehearted acceptance of Beethovenian ‘dark-to-light’ principles could hardly be expected to please everyone in the Paris of those times. Debussy, for one, as a close friend of the composer, found himself in a difficult position when publishing his opinion in La revue blanche. ‘[Music] is for him an inexhaustible store of forms’, he wrote, ‘and of possible memories which allow him to shape his ideas according to the world of his imagination’—words that can mean much what anyone wants them to. But if we recall the blistering things Debussy had to say about Gluck, Beethoven and Berlioz, to name only a few, we can reflect comfortably that even a genius like Debussy had his deaf spots.
Perhaps the most interesting comment on the Sonata came from Dukas himself when, in 1915, Guy Ropartz, the director of the Nancy Conservatoire, announced he was choosing the Sonata as a competition piece. Dukas wrote of ‘the analogy between victory over the beast within which I tried to put into music, and the other victory, the great one, the one that comes from every corner of the horizon, helping us trample underfoot the beast without, so real and almost as ugly (shall we say dirty), of which we had no inkling in those days. You may see it as no more than a symbolic correspondence, one for musicians that only they can understand, going back to a time when our distant ancestors gave a moral meaning to their symphonic poems (for solo cithara!), describing the triumph of Apollo over the Pythian serpent! There’s something of that here.’
from notes by Roger Nichols © 2006