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Fernande Decruck’s Sonata by Jarita Ng

Fernande Decruck (1896–1954) was a French composer who studied organ at the Paris Conservatory. Her husband, Maurice Decruck, was multitalented in clarinet, saxophone, and bass, was also a student at the Paris Conservatory. The couple moved to New York in 1928, and Maurice soon won a job at the New York Philharmonic as the principal bassist. He also auditioned and was invited to play the saxophone solos with the orchestra. It was when they were in New York that Decruck started composing for saxophone.  Back then, musicians and audiences did not pay much attention to Decruck’s music, and the sonata that I am going to introduce was only rediscovered 28 years after her death, at the World Saxophone Congress in 1982.

Jarita 1 Marcel MuleMarcel mule

At a saxophone congress!? Yes, at a saxophone congress. The piece is Sonate en ut# pour saxophone alto (ou alto) et orchestre (Sonata in C-sharp for alto saxophone or viola and orchestra), composed in 1943. While Fernande’s husband played saxophone, this particular sonata was composed for Marcel Mule, a friend of Fernande’s who had recently been appointed the saxophone professor at the Paris Conservatory. There is a reduction for saxophone or viola and piano, which is the version that is commonly played, by saxophonists. I was introduced to this piece by my saxophone colleagues at the University of Michigan, where I went for my undergraduate studies; the piece is a standard in their repertoire study. I didn’t pay much attention to it for a couple years until I listened to the recordings played by saxophonists Claude Delangle, Professor of Saxophone at the Paris Conservatory, and Donald Sinta, Professor of Saxophone at the University of Michigan. They both are renowned soloists and pedagogues. The sonata works beautifully for and showcases the saxophone—so many colors, so much flare, and so . . . Romantic, may I say. I decided to perform it on my senior recital in April 2012, and I enjoyed working on and performing the piece. After a couple months of work, I was ready to debate with my saxophone-playing friends about whether this piece was written for the saxophone or the viola first.

Jarita 2 DelangleClaude Delangle

Jarita 3 Donald SIntaDonald Sinta

In addition to giving a recital at the University of Michigan, I presented the sonata for the saxophone studio at Michigan State University. There was one common comment among all the saxophone players I discussed this with—the sonata was written for the viola. There were discrepancies between the saxophone and viola parts—the viola part includes a wider range of pitch, use of harmonics and pizzicato, longer arpeggios in the cadenza, and non-stop arpeggiation compared to some rests in the saxophone part, which are interpreted as breathing spots, etc. I agree with all of them. The piece sounds great on the saxophone, but I think the piece sounds even better on the viola due to those additional effects and color changes. However, I pointed out to them some elements of the piece that did not work well on the viola.

Firstly, the piece is in C-sharp!!! C-sharp! It is among one of the most difficult keys to play in. The scale of C-sharp provides minimal resonance on the viola. Secondly, the slurs in the part do not seem to indicate bowing but phrasing/breath marks. There are some long slurs over a crescendo, which are pretty challenging to execute. I ended up redoing a lot of the slurs/bowings. Thirdly, there are some note errors and clef change errors that are somewhat obvious. But the errors could have happened during the publishing process. Lastly, the piece ends on a high G-sharp on the A string on fff with the piano playing seven notes also at fff. It takes a lot, a lot, A LOT of effort to be heard under such circumstance. Well, at least it took me a lot of bows, and I had to ask the pianist to not play too loudly. But no matter which instrument Decruck wrote it for, the sonata is an extremely beautiful piece.Jarita 4 music

One of the many scales and arpeggios (note: seven sharps!)

Here is the live recording of the sonata, played on the viola, at my senior recital in 2012. The sonata has four movements. The first movement, Très modéré, expressif, is as the title suggests, an extremely expressive movement in both the viola and the piano parts. The extensive use of pentatonic scales creates a unique sonority. In the second movement, Noel, one can hear an altered version of the melody of a traditional French carol Noël nouvelet, which is known as Sing We Now of Christmas in English. Fileuse, which means spinning, is the title of the third movement, comprised of quick scales and arpeggios that resemble the movement of spinning wheels. This movement, in contrast to other slower, more expressive movements, provides a virtuosic and melodic element in the piece. The final movement, Nocturne et Rondel, has a calm opening that gradually transitions into the Rondel with exciting and dance-like passages, including some passages where saxophonists show off their double-tongue skills. The piece ends with an emotional, melodic section that leads to an ending note at the limit of the viola (the G-sharp that was mentioned earlier).

There is a commercial recording of the sonata on saxophone by Claude Delangle, which can be found here. There is a website where you can download the tracks, but it would require some searching through the list and the pages. The sheet music is published by Gérard Billaudot and can be found here. A commercial recording of the viola version is also available by Hillary Herndon and can be found here. And there is a 2010 dissertation that includes errata for the viola part, which can be found here. In 1954, an LP called Le Saxophone, Vol. 1 with Marcel Mule playing Andante et Fileuse by Decruck and other works was released. Andante et Fileuse starts with an introduction in a style similar to that of the sonata, then goes into the Fileuse exactly the same as the sonata. He did not record the sonata in its entirety.

Sonata in C# showcases the mellow sound and the capabilities of the viola. The Brahms, Clarke, Hindemith, and other “canon” sonatas are undoubtedly well-written and convincing music. But compared to the violin and cello, we violists don’t have as much repertoire to choose from. The Decruck sonata is one worthy piece to be given a chance to be played and be added to our viola repertoire.


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