Paul Dukas - Sonata in E-flat minor


Paul Dukas
Piano Sonata in E-flat minor

Jean-François Heisser
piano Steinway

"Diapason d'Or" de Diapason-Harmonie n°349 
"un événement exceptionnel" de Télérama n°2054 

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A Sonata, a set of Variations, two occasional pieces (the first in commemoration of the Joseph Haydn Centenary, the second in memory of Claude Debussy) constitute the complete works for piano by Paul Dukas. There is no way of knowing how many preliminary studies were destroyed by this master whose severity towards his own work can be compared in the realm of poetry to that of Stéphane Mallarmé...

In his Tribute to Paul Dukas, published as the lead article in the special May-June1936 issue of La Revue Musicale, Paul Valéry does not mention Mallarmé’s name specifically, but he powerfully evokes it... "I find in him what I have so greatly admired in another : a clean break with all that is facile. This can be seen as a kind of sterility by those unable to understand that a small number of works can represent a huge amount of work. I would like to explain to them that the perfectionist’s discards would make many a less gifted artist famous. Paul Dukas was well aware that even the most felicitous flash of inspiration, no matter how inherently precious it may appear to us to be, must be accepted for its potential; that we must always endow the gifts of fortune with the dignity of intelligent reflection".

Lovers of the facile find the music of Paul Dukas disturbing. In his 1911 work written under the pseudonym Octave Séré and entitled Musiciens français d’aujoud’hui, Jean Poueigh betrays his complete misunderstanding of the Sonata and the Variations, calling them, "forbidding works whose compositional difficulties, when mastered, serve as a kind of still-life, but works that lack the spark that would move us, that would make them truly beautiful, and without which even consummate craftsmanship remains cold and sterile". Jean Poueigh’s opinion is not particularly significant. We might legitimately wonder, however, how an informed critic could have remained silent regarding the popular success accorded Edouard Risler when he premiered the Paul Dukas piano Sonata at the Salle Pleyel, on 10 May 1901. Claude Debussy referred to it in the Revue Blanche (1 June 1901) : "I take great pleasure in informing those unable to hear everything for themselves that the Sonata by Monsieur Paul Dukas I have been talking about recently received an extremely warm welcome from the public".

To say of a work that it cannot move us is the same as accusing its composer of being uncommunicative, of seeing in him no more than determination, intelligence, and skill. But a single glance at the score for the Sonata in E-flat minor is enough to banish this misunderstanding. At the beginning of the first movement, the composer wrote, "Modérément vite - expressif et marqué" and the direction "espressivo" is repeated fourteen times in this first movement. It is just as instructive to consult the manuscripts of Paul Dukas. At Paris’s Salle Drouot auction rooms, on 17 December 1987, the manuscripts of the VariationsInterlude et Finale sur un thème de J-Ph Rameau and La plainteau loindu Faune ( the Fawn’s Lament from Afar) were put on sale. The first of these manuscripts, Variation I had initially been marked "Gracieusement", subsequently replaced by the composer with "Tendrement". For La plainteau loindu Faune, the manuscripts title is La Flûteau loindu Faune (The Fawn’s Flute from Afar). This shows that on a second thought, Paul Dukas decided the definitive title should underscore the expressive aspect of his tribute to Claude Debussy.

Paul Dukas did not consider music the vehicle for unbridled emotion. Georges Favre’s notes on one of his October 1929 lectures to his composition class at the Conservatory contain the following remark by Paul Dukas on Johann Sebastian Bach : "His work appears devoid of sentimentality. He is so far above us that he dominates, and will always dominate, all music. And yet, the real man can be sensed behind the exalted creative imagination, as though looking out from behind the battlements of an unscalable wall". This remark applies just as well to the man who made it. Paul Dukas systematically eliminated "sentimentality" from his work. In his Sonata, he constructed an imposing architecture, that could up to a point be compared to the "unscalable" walls in his remark on Johann Sebastian Bach; but here the man reveals himself (and more) from behind the battlements, especially in the first movement : "Modérément vite - expressif et marqué". There are two interconnected ideas in this movement, the first troubled and insistent, the second more serene. The classic allegro of the dialogue between the two antagonistic themes is replaced by a subtler interplay, in which the music seems to hesitate as to which path it should follow. But no answer is forthcoming, since the coda only add to the mystery...

The second movement, in the key of A-flat major (Calmeun peu lenttrès soutenu), opens with a tranquil theme, followed by another, more lyrical, one. In the words of Maurice Emmanuel, the Sonata in E-flat minor "moves freely within a single framework. Expositiondevelopmentrepeat exposition with two themes, in three pieces out of four, unfold their phrases" (1). The only movement which does not follow this pattern is the third (Vivementavec légèreté). It begins and ends like a Toccata. Marked, "Plus lent - mysterieusement", a Fugue stands as its center. The sinuous, tormented, almost disturbing quality of its theme contrasts sharply with the open flights of the Toccata. The coda is brief and somewhat enigmatic. Claude Debussy found the third movement particularly striking. We might compare this movement to the Suite for Piano and the dates when each was composed : May 1901 saw the premiere of the Paul Dukas Sonata completed the year before, and January 1902 that of Claude Debussy’s Suite for Piano. It would be an exaggeration to use the word "influence", but "encounter" is conceivable.

Claude Debussy’s commentary on the Paul Dukas Sonata is one of the finest in music criticism : "Monsieur Paul Dukas knows what music is made of : it is not just brilliant sound designed to beguile the ear until it can stand no more... For him it is an endless treasure trove of possible forms and souvenirs with which he can cut his ideas to the measure of his imagination. He can hold his emotion in check and shelter it from superfluous declamation; he therefore never stoops to the kind of embroidery that so often spoils the basically beautiful. If we look closely at the third part of this Sonata, we will discover under its picturesque surface a force guiding the rhythmic movement, mute and unwavering as a steel gear. The same force guides the last piece, in which the emotion is expressed with consummate art in a way which might almost be called "constructive," insofar as it evokes the kind of beauty comparable to the perfect lines of a mighty architecture, lines that melt and blend with the colours of air and open sky, harmonizing with them completely and forever" (La Revue Blanche, 15 April 1901).

Lastly, the fourth movement opens with a vast recitativo reminiscent of César Franck and Beethoven. Paul Dukas never denied his roots, but as we have seen, he was a man of his time belonging to no ephemeral movement either neo-romantic or neo-classic, but remaining simply an authentic human being, the man Yvonne Lefèbure described in these terms : "A teacher who possessed balance, fairness, harmony in a word. People compared him to Goethe, and not without reason. A personality whose every act joined the individual to the universal, and always with the profound truth of inner feelings which, although veiled by modesty and discretion, lost none of their intensity".

Text after Jean Roy original

(1) Maurice Emmanuel : La musique de piano de Paul Dukas (La Revue Musicale, May-June 1936).

Jean-François Heisser


Jean-François Heisser is one of the most versatile French performers of his generation. To the major composer of the classical and romantic repertory, he has added a considerable number of 20th century names, both already accepted or still contentious. Among them : De Falla, Albeniz, Granados, Fauré (the chamber music), d’Indy (the sonata), Dukas (the complete piano works), Reger, Bartók, Schönberg, Strawinsky; and major solo or concert works by the significant composers of the second half of the 20th century such as Boulez, Ligeti, Stockhausen, Berio, Zimmerman, Crumb, Messian; plus works by French composers who are personal favorites of his, such as André Boucourechliev, Gérard Masson and Gilbert Amy.

Jean-François Heisser was born in 1950 and studied at the French National Conservatory of Music under (among others) Vlado Perlemuter, Jean-François Heisser left the Conservatory with six First Prizes : piano, chamber music, composition... In 1984 he returned there to teach. He has been a regular guest artist at numerous music festivals worldwide. In France (Aix-en-Provence, La Roque d’Anthéron, Lille), in Switzerland (Montreux-Vevey), in Spain, Sweden, Germany and South America.

He has played with the Moscow Philharmonic, the Bucarest Philharmonic, the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra, the Radio Orchestras of RAI-Turin, Sofia and Helsinki, the Orchestre de Paris, the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, the Bavarian Radio Orchestra and Mai Florentin Orchestra under the batons of Zubin Mehta, Dimitri Kitaïenko, Emmanuel Krivine, David Shallon, Marek Janowski, Antonio Ros-Marba, Myung-Whun-Chung, Leif Sergerstam, Michael Tilson-Thomas etc. Jean-François Heisser has been active in the field of chamber music, playing with Sandor Vegh, Rita Streich, Augustin Dumay, Gérard Poulet, Pierre Amoyal, Misha Maisky, Georges Pludermacher, Régis Pasqier, Elizabeth Balmas, Roland Pidoux, Gérard Caussé, Michel Portal, Dimitri Sitkovetski and more.

Steinway Concert Grand



Sonate en mi bémol mineur (1899-1900)
à Monsieur Camille Saint-Saëns
Modérément vite
Calme - un peu lent - très soutenu
Vivement, avec légèreté
Très lent - librement - animé


"Diapason d'Or" de Diapason-Harmonie n°349 
"un événement exceptionnel" de Télérama n°2054 
"Diapason d'Or 1989"
Sélected by "Les Indispensables" du Guide du disque compact Fayard (Edition 1995)
Sélected by Le Monde de la Musique, Hors-série Spécial Piano dans "Le Meilleur du Piano"
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