Composers Datebook®

Debussy's Violin Sonata

Claude Debussy (1862–1918) — Violin Sonata (Midori, violin; Robert McDonald, piano) Sony 89699

Composer's Datebook - May 5, 2022


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May 05, 2022


The French composer Claude Debussy was too sick to be called up for service when World War I broke out in 1914. His private battle with cancer on top of his nation’s battle with Germany plunged him into depression. But by the spring of 1915, Debussy decided to keep on composing. “I want to work,” he wrote, “not so much for myself, but to give proof, however small it may be, that not even 30 million Boches can destroy French thought.”

He knew his remaining time was precious, so decided to write small chamber works rather than big orchestral pieces. Debussy planned to write SIX chamber sonatas but completed only three. Working, as he put it, “like a madman,” he finished a Cello Sonata and a Trio Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp by the fall of 1915.

In December of that year, the side-effects of radium treatments and morphine injections for his cancer brought Debussy’s Sonata project to a grinding halt. Rallying somewhat by the by the summer of 1916, Debussy vowed to keep on working. He wrote: “If I am doomed to vanish soon, I desire at least to have done my duty.”

On May 5, 1917, Debussy made his last public appearance in Paris at the Salle Gaveay, accompanying violinist Gaston Poulet in the premiere of his final work – a Sonata for Violin and Piano. Debussy would die the following spring.

Music Played in Today's Program

Claude Debussy (1862–1918) — Violin Sonata (Midori, violin; Robert McDonald, piano) Sony 89699

On This Day


  • 1819 - Polish composer Stanislaw Moniuszko, in Ubiel, province of Minsk, Russia;

  • 1869 - German composer and conductor Hans Pfitzner, in Moscow, of German parents (Julian date: April 23);


  • 1726 - Handel: opera "Alessandro," in London at King's Theater in the Haymarket, with the Italian soprano Faustina Bordini marking her London debut in a work by Handel (Gregorian date: May 16);

  • 1917 - Debussy: Violin Sonata, in Paris, by violinist Gaston Poulet with the composer at the piano (his last public appearance);

  • 1926 - Copland: Two Pieces ("Nocturne" and "Ukelele Serenade"), in Paris by violinist Samuel Dushkin with the composer at the piano;

  • 1930 - Milhaud: opera "Christophe Colomb" (Christopher Columbus),at the Berlin State Opera;

  • 1941 - Britten: "Paul Bunyan" (text by W.H. Auden) at Columbia University in New York City;

  • 1945 - Barber: "I Hear an Army," "Monks and Raisins," "Nocturne,""Sure On This Shining Night," during a CBS radio broadcast, with mezzo Jennie Tourel and the CBS Symphony, composer conducting;

  • 1946 - Douglas Moore: Symphony in A, in Paris;

  • 1977 - George Crumb: oratorio "Star Child," by the New York Philharmonic, Pierre Boulez conducting;

  • 1982 - Ellen Taaffe Zwilich: Symphony No. 1, at Alice Tully Hall in New York, by the American Composers Orchestra, Gunther Schuller conducting; This work won the Pulitzer Prize in 1983;

  • 1987 - John Williams: "A Hymn to New England," by the Boston Pops conducted by the composer (recorded by the Pops and Keith Lockhardt );

  • 1991 - Joan Tower: "Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman" No. 3(dedicated to Frances Richard of ASCAP), at Carnegie Hall, by members of the Empire Brass and the New York Philharmonic, Zubin Mehta conducting;

  • 2000 - Christopher Rouse: "Rapture" for orchestra, by the Pittsburgh Symphony, Mariss Jansons conducting;

  • 2001 - Christopher Rouse: "Rapturedux" cello ensemble, by the Royal Northern College of Music Cellists in Manchester (U.K.);


  • 1891 - Carnegie Hall opens in New York City with a concert that included Beethoven's "Leonore" Overture No. 3 conducted by Walter Damrosch, and Tchaikovsky's "Marche Solennelle" (Coronation March) conducted by its composer.