Claude Debussy – Sonata “No. 4” (2011)

At some point in early 1917, Claude Debussy (1862-1918) scrawled a note in the manuscript of his “Sonata No. 3” for violin and piano stating that his next sonata would be scored for oboe, horn, and harpsichord. Lamentably for the players of those instruments, and indeed everyone else, the cancer that was invading his gut would not leave him enough time to work on the project. Composers since then would be hard-pressed not to be fascinated by his unusual choice of instruments. Pierre Boulez has called it “a fantastic idea.” Thomas Adès went so far as to write a piece for it (“Sonata da Caccia”) as did violist and composer Marshall Fine (“Intermezzo-Epitaph”). Both composers refer to Debussy’s unwritten Sonata as inspiration.

Noted musicologist and harpsichord virtuoso Kenneth Cooper has gone a step further. He states that “a very great curiosity about how Debussy’s music would have sounded in his projected instrumentation has led to a stab at finding out.” To that end (and lacking any identifiable sketches for the piece) he has judiciously selected and arranged three original piano pieces that combine to form a plausible Sonata as Debussy might have conceived it. The first movement is an excerpt from the ballet “La Boîte à Joujoux” (“The Toy Box”). This ballet was intended as an orchestra piece but (except for a few orchestrated bars) exists only in a piano score. (The orchestration was later completed by André Caplet.) The second movement is an arrangement of “Étude pour les répétées,” and the final movement is the finale from “Images I.”

The piece presents technical challenges for the horn player. In contrast to Debussy’s orchestral horn parts, the part ascends frequently above Ab. The highest note is high-C and the lowest note is low-G. It is natural to conjecture that any part Debussy might have written for the Sonata would have been more virtuosic than his orchestral parts. Cooper has provided a part that both challenges and rewards the effort of learning it.

The sheet music is available from International Music (IMC No. 3651) with an extensive preface by Cooper. The linked video is from a recently released CD of the piece with New York-based hornist Ann Ellsworth. The other players are Keve Wilson (oboe) and Kenneth Cooper (harpsichord). These players have formed a group called “HOBOCORD” that has begun to commission new works for this intriguing ensemble.

3 comments on Claude Debussy – Sonata “No. 4” (2011)

  1. Hi Robert. Thanks for the info about Debussy’s projected sonata no. 4 – Since first learning of Debussy’s projected instrumentation for the sonata, I’ve always found this combination of instruments intriguing. I really enjoyed hearing what Kenneth Cooper did working with Debussy originals. Maybe nothing like what Debussy would have written, but still very enjoyable. I wasn’t sure if you were aware of the piece called “Axiom” by Marc-Andre Dalbavie – apparently inspired by Debussy’s plan. I haven’t heard it, but based on some of his other music I’d guess it’s probably not “up my alley”, Still, I’m glad to know that several composers have been inspired by the projected 4th sonata.

    best wishes,
    jeff o’k

  2. I think this project was a horrible idea, and calling it a Debussy Sonata is entirely misleading. He made a pastiche, an arrangement at best. It is clearly not a great combination of instruments. That it was published is a real shame.

    1. As far as the combination of instruments goes, I think the Thomas Ades piece is effective. Its difficulty is a significant hurdle to performances, but I like it when done well. I agree that it is difficult to imagine what Debussy himself might have done with such a combination.

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