Violin Sonata (Franck)

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The Sonata in A major for Violin and Piano by César Franck is one of his best-known compositions, and considered one of the finest sonatas for violin and piano ever written.[1] It is an amalgam of his rich native harmonic language with the Classical traditions he valued highly, held together in a cyclic framework.


The Violin Sonata in A was written in 1886, when Franck was 63, as a wedding present for the 31-year-old violinist Eugène Ysaÿe.[1] Twenty-eight years earlier, in 1858, Franck had promised a violin sonata for Cosima von Bülow. This never saw the light of day, but it has been speculated that whatever work Franck had done on that piece was put aside and eventually ended up in the sonata he wrote for Ysaÿe in 1886.[2]

Franck presented the work to Ysaÿe on the morning of his wedding on 26 September 1886. After a hurried rehearsal, Ysaÿe and the pianist Léontine Bordes-Pène, a wedding guest,[3] played the Sonata to the other wedding guests.[4]

The Sonata was given its first public concert performance on 16 December of that year,[2] at the Musée Moderne de Peinture (Museum of Modern Painting) at Brussels.[5] Eugène Ysaÿe and Léontine Bordes-Pène were again the performers.[2][6] The Sonata was the final item in a long program that started at 3 pm. When it came time for the Sonata, it was now dusk and the gallery was bathed in gloom, but the gallery authorities permitted no artificial light whatsoever. Initially, it seemed the Sonata would have to be abandoned, but Ysaÿe and Bordes-Pène decided to press on regardless. In the event, they had to play the last three movements in virtual darkness, from memory. Vincent d'Indy, who was present, recorded these details of the event.[7][8]

Ysaÿe kept the Violin Sonata in his repertoire for the next 40 years of his life. His championing of the Sonata contributed to the public recognition of Franck as a major composer.[9] This recognition was quite belated, as Franck would be dead within 4 years, and did not have his first unqualified public success until the last year of his life (19 April 1890, at the Salle Pleyel, where his String Quartet in D was premiered).[10]

The Franck Sonata regularly appears on concert programs and on recordings and is in the core repertoire of all major violinists. Jascha Heifetz played the Sonata in A at his final recital in 1972.[11]

The piece is further notable for the difficulty of its piano part, as compared to most chamber repertoire; technical problems include frequent extreme extended figures – the composer himself having possessed very large hands – and virtuoso runs and leaps, particularly in the second movement (though some passages can be facilitated by employing a spare hand to cover some notes).


The work is cyclic in nature, all the movements sharing common thematic threads. This was a technique Franck had adapted from Franz Liszt (his friend, and Cosima von Bülow's father), in which themes from one movement reappear in subsequent movements, but usually transformed.[7] Vincent d'Indy described the Sonata as "the first and purest model of the cyclical use of themes in sonata form", and referred to it as "this true musical monument".[2]

The movements alternate between slow and fast.[6]

  • I. Allegretto ben moderato, 9/8
    • This gentle and sweetly reflective rocking theme, introduced by the violin after a short introduction by the piano, is the thematic core of the entire work; Franck originally intended it as a slow movement, but Ysaÿe preferred a slightly quicker tempo, and convinced Franck to mark it Allegretto.[9]
  • II. Allegro
    • This turbulent movement is sometimes considered the real opening movement, with the Allegretto ben moderato serving as a long introduction.
  • III. Ben moderato: Recitative-Fantasia
    • This is improvisatory in nature, and free in both structure and expression.
  • IV. Allegretto poco mosso
    • The main melody is heard in canonic imitation between the instruments, and recurs in a rondo-like manner to a triumphant and soaring conclusion. James Harding described the movement as "a magnificent example of canonic writing, simple, majestic and irresistible in its ample, beautifully wrought proportions".[2]


Sonata in A major for Violin and Piano , arranged for flute and piano

Performed by Albert Tipton (flute) and Mary Norris (piano)

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The Violin Sonata in A exists in versions for cello; viola; flute; alto saxophone; tuba; organ with choir; violin and strings; and violin and orchestra (recorded by Leonid Kogan).[11] A version for solo piano by the pianist/composer Alfred Cortot has been recorded several times.

The setting for cello and piano was the only alternative version sanctioned by Franck.[12] This was created by the renowned cellist Jules Delsart. After thorough historical study based on reliable documents, Delsart's transcription for cello (the piano part remains the same as in the violin sonata) was published by G. Henle Verlag as an Urtext edition.[13] Based on oral history (Pablo Casals[14]) and written document (letter written by Antoine Ysaye, Eugène Ysaÿe's son),[14] it has often been speculated that the work was first conceived as a sonata for cello and piano and only later reset for violin and piano when the commission from Eugène Ysaÿe arrived.[4]


The Violin Sonata in A by César Franck has been recorded by many great violinist/pianist duos, among them:

Among the recordings of the version for cello and piano are:

The flute and piano version has been recorded by James Galway and Martha Argerich.

This site shows details of over 150 recordings of the Sonata in A major, including in its various transcriptions.


  1. ^ a b Music Web International
  2. ^ a b c d e Colorado Public Radio
  3. ^ Gerhard Taschner: The Early 78RPM Recordings
  4. ^ a b Classical Archives
  5. ^ Jason Sundram's Web Palette
  6. ^ a b
  7. ^ a b Wolfgang
  8. ^ Gramophone, February 1938
  9. ^ a b Hollywood Bowl
  10. ^ Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 5th ed, 1954, ed. Eric Blom, Franck, César, vol. III, p. 467
  11. ^ a b c
  12. ^ Peter Jost (11 November 2013). "‘Pour Piano et Violon ou Violoncelle’ – Is there a cello sonata by César Franck?". Henle Verlag. Retrieved 13 March 2014. 
  13. ^ (Editor) Peter Jost (2014). "Cesar Franck Sonata in A major, Edition for Violoncello, Urtext Edition". Henle Verlag. Retrieved 13 March 2014. 
  14. ^ a b Oxford, W. T. (2001). "PH.D. thesis: A Transcription of Cesar Franck's Sonata in A Major for the Baritone Saxophone" (PDF). University of Texas at Austin. pp. 15–16. Retrieved 27 March 2014. 
  15. ^

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