Masterclass: Debussy Violin Sonata in G minor

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Fedor Rudin explores the emotionally volatile first movement of a sonata written by an anxious composer tormented by illness, old age and war

This French music has been very close to my heart since I first started work on it when I was perhaps 18 and it’s one of the pieces that I’ve played the most. It is also very popular in recitals, but despite its accessible and pure harmonic, melodic and formal structure, few musicians bring out its emotional complexity successfully

Debussy wrote this sonata in 1917, during the First World War, when he was an old man suffering from serious health issues. While on the surface it might sound light, simple and optimistic, there is something far darker behind the score that can make it challenging to understand. I did not pay enough attention to that fact when I was younger, because I was too focused on enjoying the beautiful French impressionistic harmonies that are so far removed from the music’s deeper meaning and all of the insecurity, pain and uncertainty hidden between the lines.

Approach to fingering

Normally I don’t write anything on my music. Instead I prefer to keep the score empty and sometimes – at least in less technically challenging passages – I’ll find new fingering solutions during a concert. All my past violin teachers, and also many violinists in my close circle, believe that you have to plan everything, and that can be a good idea for intonation, but I also like to play with spontaneity, using half-positions whenever I can, and with shifts on semitones for maximum smoothness.

The four strings of a violin have completely different characters, so if I want a change of scene, I always try to change string and choose fingerings to bring out the colour and character of every phrase. ‘Practicality’ is the lowest priority. I move to the G string in bar 8 to bring out the new colour, for example, and I move on to the D string to bring out the new smooth atmosphere in bar 24. If I decide to shift up on to the D string for the up-beat, I play the dolce vibrato change even more consciously for a change in colour…

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