Sonate, que me veux-tu?

Cello sonata

But what does it mean?

Fontenelle’s famous outburst (literally Sonata, what do you want of me?) was aimed at the ‘pure’ music and abstract forms of baroque instrumental music. Essentially, the question is: how can something that has no ‘meaning’ mean so much?

Abstract music was never Debussy’s ‘thing’; nearly all his works have some sort of association with the extra-musical, the literary/poetic, or the painterly. So it came as something of a surprise (perhaps I should say shock) to his friends and admirers when, towards the end of his composing career he turned his attention to the abstraction of the sonata.

Not, maybe the sonata in the Beethoven or Brahms sense (though…) but in the Couperinesque/baroque sense of a piece of instrumental music (sonata), as distinct from the vocal cantata. The composer’s plans were ambitious – five sonatas for divers groups of instruments (in fascinating combinations such as oboe, horn and harpsichord) and then a sixth, to bring all the players of the previous five together.

He only lived to complete three of them.

 

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