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Name of Work

Debussy, Claude (1862-1918)
Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp



Mar 22, 2009

Mathieu Dufour, Flute
Yukiko Ogura, Viola
Allison Attar, Harp

Mar 23, 2009

Mathieu Dufour, Flute
Yukiko Ogura, Viola
Allison Attar, Harp

DEBUSSY-Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp (1915)

Composed in 1915

Claude Debussy’s three sonatas, virtually his last compositions, are scored for cello and piano, for violin and piano, and for a combination originally to have been flute, oboe, and harp. Switching from the oboe proved to be a significant decision. By casting his second sonata instead as a work for flute, viola, and harp, he came up with a unique and magical instrumentation. Rather than contrasting the flute with another member of the wind family, he set it off against the alto voice of the string family. Further contrast comes from the incisive, plucked-strings sonority of the harp. The combination produces a beautifully elegant and refined sound in the true tradition of French chamber music. Later composers and arrangers have quite often been inspired to use the same kind of trio.

Already severely ill in 1915 — he would die of cancer three years later — Debussy was further devastated at the time of the sonatas’ creation by the catastrophe of the war that had engulfed not just France but most of the world. He seemed to view the sonatas as a return to an earlier, simpler, more peaceful time.

The Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp echoes some of the otherworldly serenity of a more famous work that features the flute: Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. In the composer’s own words, in a letter to a friend: “[The Sonata] belongs to that era when I still knew something about music. It even recalls a very early Debussy, that of the Nocturnes, it seems to me.” In the Three Nocturnes for orchestra, contrasts of tone color — including wordless voices in the finale, Sirenes — are of major importance. So they are on a smaller scale in the sonata, because of the special timbres of each instrument.

Musicologist Anthony Burton wrote this commentary on Debussy’s sonata-trio: “the most remarkable feature of the work is the evenness of its flow, from section to section and from movement to movement....Debussy clearly decided that strong [thematic] contrasts were unnecessary, or even impossible, when the sound of the ensemble was so distinctive: the flute, mostly in its lower register, and the viola, often muted, are combined with the limpid harp in sonorities which are at once cool and sensuous.”

The three movements are closely related thematically. The music can often be heard as a dialogue between the flute and the viola, with the harp offering commentary and an occasional solo. The delicate opening movement, Pastorale, and the second movement, an Interlude in the rhythm of a minuet, both recall 18th-century French composers like Couperin and Rameau, whom Debussy much admired.

The harmonic and stylistic language of the sonata, however, is very much his own: elasticity of formal structure, muted tonalities, subtle fluctuations between major and minor, traces of the Oriental-tinged pentatonic and whole-tone scales used prominently in the piano Preludes that preceded the sonatas by just a few years. The sonata’s Finale sums up and rounds off its predecessors. The opening motives of the Pastorale are repeated in the Finale’s last measures, as the players reach a gentle reconciliation.

CCM first performed this work at the March 2, 1987 First Monday concert at the Chicago Cultural Center.

Program notes by Andrea Lamoreaux

Performance dates: March 22 & 23, 2009

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