On an October evening in 1893, after a long afternoon of chamber music, the young Belgian composer Guillaume Lekeu went to a restaurant with his companions Robert Brussel and Henri Gillet. All three men ordered the same sorbet for dessert, and all three subsequently fell ill. Brussel and Gillet soon recovered, but Lekeu’s conditioned only worsened: acute throat pain followed by body aches and fever. In a weakened state and lacking any appetite, Lekeu ensconced himself at his parents’ home in Angers, France, hoping to be up and about in less than two weeks. After all, he had a piano quartet to complete and, having recently become engaged, a wedding to look forward to. Yet the illness was far more severe than he had anticipated. The contaminated water used to prepare that sorbet had given him typhoid fever, and on January 21, 1894, just a day after turning 24, Guillaume Lekeu was dead.
In a little more than seven years, Lekeu had composed some 60 works, many left unfinished at his death. Although he didn’t cut the typical figure of the tormented romantic artist—his outlook on life was generally happy and positive—the emotionally charged music that he wrote contains at least as much despondency as gaiety. (La joie [est] mille fois plus difficile à peindre que la souffrance, he once stated: “Joy is a thousand times harder to paint than suffering.”) The question surrounding this gifted, highly inventive artist—the rightful heir to Cesar Franck as the leader of the Belgian school—is, What if? What if Lekeu had not died so young? How would his style have evolved in the radical early years of the 20th century? Would he be spoken of today in the same breath as his hero Franck, Maurice Ravel, and Claude Debussy?
He was born in Heusy, a village in the province of Liège. When he was nine, the family moved to Poitiers, France, where he entered secondary school, excelling in many subjects. He published his first composition at the age of 15, but when he embarked upon his university years in Paris, Lekeu studied philosophy, not music. A summer journey to Germany, and specifically to see Wagner’s operas at Bayreuth, was a turning point, and in the autumn of that same year, 1889, he began music lessons with Franck, then in his late 70s. Though reluctant to take on new students, Franck was won over by Lekeu, assuming the role of father figure as well as teacher, drilling his pupil in the rudiments of counterpoint and fugal writing. Lekeu, in turn, idolized Franck, but also Wagner, and perhaps most of all, Beethoven—the young man was said to be never without his copy of the master’s Late Quartets.
When Franck died in 1890, Lekeu’s grief was nearly unbearable. “I passed four or five days a week,” he wrote, “smoking and watching the implacable rain pour down and telling myself how wise it would be to jump out the window.” Eventually, he got back to work, under the guidance of another leading composer of the day, Vincent d’Indy, himself a former pupil of Franck’s. Lekeu was composing now at a furious rate, and at an 1892 performance of his cantata Andromède, he received heavy praise from the legendary violinist Eugène Ysaÿe. Ysaÿe asked Lekeu to send along any work of chamber music that he happened to write—and to begin by composing a sonata for violin and piano.
This Sonata in G major, completed in the autumn of 1892, is the piece Lekeu is best known for today. I first read about it as a boy, when I was devouring Yehudi Menuhin’s autobiography Unfinished Journey, but only heard the piece many years later, amazed that so beguiling a work was not better known. It begins with an utterly charming theme, an eight-bar phrase that drifts before us like a reverie on a languid summer’s day. This melody serves as the structural basis of the entire piece—Lekeu adapts and transforms it via a seemingly endless number of harmonic modulations, conveying in the process so many contrasting moods: joy, sorrow, agitation, repose. The cyclical nature of the piece, with the theme recurring throughout in various guises, shows the strong influence of Franck. (In this and other ways, Franck’s own Sonata for Violin and Piano was surely a model.) Harmonically, Lekeu also invokes Franck, but Wagner and Richard Strauss, too, especially at the end of the first movement, when the piano tolls out a sequence of plush and pedaled chromatic chords, just before the final quiet notes are heard.
If, as he stated in one of his letters, Lekeu wanted the sonata’s outer movements to be performed with “passionate abandon,” he imagined the second movement played in a state “of absolute calm.” Here the first-movement theme is transformed once more, in melodic writing both simple and inventive, with a pervasive feeling of sadness that never devolves into sentimentality. Perhaps it’s the Baroque temperament that I detect—the faint echoes of Bach—that serves as a kind of restraint. At any rate, the mood becomes unsettled and animated again in the third and final movement. Over a roiling piano accompaniment, the violin line soars and sings, impelled on by the rolling triplet figures, the music revealing Lekeu’s mastery of counterpoint. Taken as a whole, the sonata charts the journey from innocence to experience, and when that principal theme is heard yet again, this time just as it was at the beginning of the piece, it’s as if a heady, nostalgic whiff of the past wafts over us. Then the work builds, through a series of swells and crests, to a thrilling, heroic end.
Lekeu’s Violin Sonata “has steered a triumphal course throughout the musical world and is to-day, or ought to be, in the repertoire of every violinist capable of playing and understanding it and not addicted to atrophy of taste and ambition.” So wrote the noted American musicologist Oscar Sonneck in 1919, in the pages of the journal he edited, The Musical Quarterly. And though many prominent violinists have included the Lekeu in their repertoire—I can recommend without reservation the recordings of Menuhin, Christian Ferras, Arthur Grumiaux, Philippe Hirschhorn, and Elmar Oliveira—the work has not, alas, attained the place in the repertoire that Sonneck imagined for it. The sonata—youthful, yes, but wise and prophetic, too—could have been a remarkable beginning. Instead, it feels like a valediction. Lekeu himself thought, upon finishing it, that he had already moved on to better things. The Piano Quartet, for example, of which he composed only a first movement and a portion of a second—a wondrous piece full of motion and turbulence that, in Lekeu’s estimation, constituted
an entire poem of the heart, where a thousand sentiments clash, where cries of suffering yield to long appeals to happiness, where there is strife and insinuation of caresses, seeking to calm somber thoughts, where cries of love follow blackest despair in the effort to conquer it and on the other hand eternal grief endeavors to crush the joy of life.
Lekeu—connoisseur of art, voracious reader of poetry and classical literature, sensualist, and bon vivant—did not live long enough to be acclaimed a master or a genius, but what he left behind, especially the Violin Sonata and the Piano Quartet, gives us a strong indication of what exactly he might have become.
Listen to Christian Ferras and Pierre Barbizet play the Lekeu Violin Sonata in G major.