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Saint-Saëns’ First Violin Sonata: Heroism and Virtuosity

Soaring, expansive, heroic, and thrillingly virtuosic…These are words which might describe Camille Saint-Saëns’ Violin Sonata No. 1 in D minor, Op. 75, written in the autumn of 1885. 

Echoes of Beethoven’s violin sonatas surface occasionally in this music (Compare this dialogue between piano and violin with the opening turn of Beethoven’s “Spring” Sonata). But all of the glistening colors and distinctly French sounds of Saint-Saëns are here in abundance. For example, notice the splashes of color in the piano here. Or listen to this passage from the second movement and consider its similarities with the “Aquarium” movement from The Carnival of the Animals- a piece from which Saint-Saëns continuously sought to distance himself out of fear that he wouldn’t be considered “serious” as a composer.

More importantly, the First Sonata seems to have a deep kinship with the “Organ” Symphony, which Saint-Saëns completed a year later. As with the Symphony, the First Sonata’s four movements are grouped into two larger sections (Allegro agitato-Adagio and Allegro moderato-Allegro molto), and there’s cyclic development throughout. In the final moments of the last movement, the first movement’s bold second theme returns in a euphoric climax. Then, with an unabashed sense of joy and playfulness, the violin and piano leap up and down in a dizzying display of parallel motion.  Saint-Saëns jokingly told his publisher that the piece should be called “the hippogriffsonata”, insinuating that only a mythical creature could play the violin part.

Here is a 2013 recording by French violinist Fanny Clamagirand and pianist Vanya Cohen:

Recordings

  • Saint-Saëns: Violin Sonata No. 1 in D minor, Op. 75, Fanny Clamagirand and pianist Vanya Cohen  iTunes
  • Fanny Clamagirand’s complete discography

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