John Koslovsky/Matthew Brown

The Contrapuntal Legacy of the French Fin-de-siècle: A Look at Dukas’ Piano Sonata in E-flat minor

“For [Dukas], music is an inexhaustible treasure-trove of forms, of possibilities that enable him to mold his ideas into a musical kingdom drawn from his own imagination. He is master of his own emotions and knows how to avoid unnecessary outbursts; consequently he never lets himself be led into unnecessary developments that often spoil otherwise very beautiful pieces.” Debussy’s comments about Paul Dukas’s Piano Sonata in E-flat Minor from La Revue blanche (15 April 1901) seem at first sight like wishful thinking, the sort of praise one might expect from an old friend and classmate from the Paris Conservatoire. From a bird’s-eye perspective, the work seems conventional enough: three of the four movements are cast in sonata form and the other includes a long fugal interlude. On closer inspection, however, Debussy’s remarks seem right on target.

This paper takes a close look at Dukas’s sonata, a piece exhibiting a rich array of formal and contrapuntal details. In contrast to other analytical studies of French fin-de-siècle music, which mostly deal with its chordal or scalar features, this paper focuses on the contrapuntal dimension, thereby bridging the gap between the sort of training Debussy and Dukas received at the Conservatoire and the pieces they produced as a result of that training. Besides employing stylistically-oriented contrapuntal passages (e.g., the fugal and toccata-like sections of the third movement), Dukas’s sonata also makes extensive use of chromatic voice-leading, motivic transformations, invertible counterpoint, and hidden repetitions in each of its movements. In the end, the paper draws a connection to the wider practice of French composers at the turn of the century while showing the unique attributes of Dukas’s compositional style.