Sonatina in D Major for Violin and Piano, D.384
Born January 31, 1797, Vienna
Died November 19, 1828, Vienna
Schubert wrote three brief violin sonatas in the spring of 1816, when he had just turned nineteen. He had already composed some of his most famous songs, including Gretchen am Spinnrade (1814) and Erlkönig (1815), but his instrumental music had not reach a comparable sophistication: as he wrote these sonatas he was completing his youthful Fourth Symphony. The three violin sonatas–genial, graceful, and unpretentious–remained in manuscript until 1836, eight years after Schubert’s death, when they were published by Diabelli under the title “Sonatinas.”
That title is unfortunate, for it may lead listeners to undervalue this music. Schubert had learned to play both the violin and piano as a boy, and if the writing for the two instruments is fluid and idiomatic. Though the other two have four movements, the Sonatina in D Major, which dates from March 1816, lacks a minuet; the entire sonatina lasts a very compact twelve minutes. One senses the influence of Mozart throughout, and several phrases show more than just a passing similarity to phrases in the Mozart violin sonatas.
The Allegro molto opens with a unison theme that outlines the notes of the D-major triad, and this theme dominates the movement; a second theme-group is based on similar triad shapes, and the development includes a great deal of imitation-and-answer as violin and piano trade bits of this theme. The Andante shows a baroque richness and elegance, full of grace notes, dotted rhythms, and turns. The piano presents the main subject, and the violin quickly picks this up. The A-major geniality of the opening section gives way to a wistful center section, where Schubert marks the violin part espressivo and moves to A minor. This is in many ways the most “advanced” part of this Sonatina: it looks ahead to mature Schubert, where the simplest harmonic and melodic changes can effect a whole change of mood; the movement concludes with a return to the opening material. The concluding Allegro vivace rockets along happily on its opening theme. Throughout, in the many returns of this theme and in the contrasting episodes, violin and piano trade phrases easily: this is duo-music of a most graceful and accomplished order.
Violin Sonata No. 1 in F Minor, Opus 80
Born April 23, 1891, Sontsovka
Died March 5, 1953, Moscow
Prokofiev’s First Violin Sonata had a difficult genesis. Prokofiev began work on it in 1938 during the one of the most horrifying moments in Soviet history–the period of Stalin’s purges–but found that he could not complete it. He set the score aside, but before he could return to it, another of the most traumatic events in Russian history–the Second World War–occurred. In response to the war Prokofiev wrote some of his greatest scores, including the opera War and Peace and the mighty Fifth Symphony. Only after the war was over did he return to complete this sonata, eight years after it was begun. This made for problems with numbering: during the war, Prokofiev had written another violin sonata; he called this his Second, even though it was completed before the First. Violinist David Oistrakh, dedicatee of the First Sonata, gave the premiere performance in Moscow on October 23, 1946.
While the Second Sonata is one of Prokofiev’s sunniest scores (it shows no trace of the war that raged during its creation), the First is grim, and Soviet commentators were quick to put the politically-correct interpretation on such dark music: some heard it as resistance to the Nazis, others as a portrait of oppressed Russia, and so on. Seventy years after the completion of this sonata, it is far better to let the music speak for itself than to impose extraneous interpretations on it.
Beneath the lyric surface of this music, the mood is often icy and dark–even brutal. Some of this unsettling quality comes from Prokofiev’s extremely fluid metrical sense: in this score, the meter sometimes changes every measure. The marking for the opening Andante assai is 3/4 4/4, and Prokofiev alternates those two meters, though he will sometimes fall into just one of them for extended passages. The somber first movement opens with an ostinato-like piano passage over which the violin makes its muttering, tentative entrance. Much of the main section is double-stopped, and in the final moments come quietly-racing runs for muted violin; Prokofiev said that these should sound “like the wind in a graveyard,” and he marks the violinist’s part freddo: “cold.”
The second movement, Allegro brusco (“brusque”) is in sonata form. The pounding opening subject gives way to a soaring second theme marked eroico; the brusque and the lyric alternate throughout this movement, which ends with the violin rocketing upward to the concluding high C. Prokofiev began the Andante–which he described as “slow, gentle, and tender”–before the war, but did not complete it until 1946. Muted throughout, the violin has the main subject over rippling triplets from the piano. The concluding Allegrissimo brings back the metrical freedom of the opening movement: Prokofiev’s metric indication is 5/8 7/8 8/8. The alternating meters give the music an asymmetric feel, which is intensified by the aggressive quality of the thematic material. The cold winds from the first movement return to blow icily through the sonata’s final pages and to bring this music to its somber close. Sonata in G Major for Violin and Piano
Sonata for Violin and Piano
Born March 7, 1875, Ciboure
Died December 28, 1937, Paris
Ravel began making sketches for his Violin Sonata in 1923, the year after he completed his orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. He was composing a number of works for violin during these years, including Tzigane, but the Violin Sonata proved extremely difficult for him, and he did not complete it until 1927. The first performance, by violinist Georges Enesco and the composer, took place on May 30, 1927, in Paris while that city was still in a dither over the landing of Charles Lindbergh the week before.
In the Violin Sonata, Ravel wrestled with a problem that has plagued all who compose violin sonatas–the clash between the resonant, sustained sound of the violin and the percussive sound of the piano–and he chose to accentuate these differences: “It was this independence I was aiming at when I wrote a Sonata for violin and piano, two incompatible instruments whose incompatibility is emphasized here, without any attempt being made to reconcile their contrasted characters.” The most distinctive feature of the sonata, however, is Ravel’s use of jazz elements in the slow movement.
The opening Allegretto is marked by emotional restraint. The piano alone announces the cool first theme, which is quickly picked up by the violin. A sharply rhythmic figure, much like a drum tattoo, contrasts with the rocking, flowing character of the rest of this movement, which closes on a quietly soaring restatement of the main theme.
Ravel called the second movement Blues, but he insisted that this is jazz as seen by a Frenchman. In a lecture during his American tour of 1928, he said of this movement: “while I adopted this popular form of your music, I venture to say that nevertheless it is French music, Ravel’s music, that I have written.” He sets out to make violin and piano sound like a saxophone and guitar, specifying that the steady accompanying chords must be played strictly in time so that the melodic line can sound “bluesy” in contrast. The “twang” of this movement is accentuated by Ravel’s setting the violin in G major and the piano in A-flat major at the opening.
Thematic fragments at the very beginning of the finale slowly accelerate to become a virtuoso perpetual motion. Ravel brings back themes from the first two movements before the music rushes to its brilliant close, which features complex string-crossings for the violinist.
Grand Adagio in D Major from Raymonda
Born August 10, 1865, St. Petersburg
Died March 21, 1936, Paris
Glazunov’s ballet Raymonda had its premiere at the Imperial Ballet Theatre in St. Petersburg on January 19, 1898, with choreography by the great Marius Petipa, who had been choreographer for Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake. The ballet tells a rather exotic tale: the countess Raymonda loves Jean di Brienne, a crusader knight, but an unexpected visitor to the court, the Saracen Abderakhman, is smitten with her, so much that he eventually tries to take her by force. He is blocked by Jean de Brienne, who kills him in a duel. This may all seem melodramatic, but with opulent settings and great dancing, Raymonda was a success, and it has been revived by over the last century by Mikhail Fokine, Anna Pavlova, George Balanchine, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and Rudolph Nureyev.
One excerpt from the ballet has become famous in the concert hall: violinist Efrem Zimbalist, who had championed Glazunov’s Violin Concerto, made an arrangement of the Grand Adagio from Act I for violin and piano, and this has become a favorite of violinists, including Jascha Heifetz and Nathan Milstein, both of whom recorded it. Full of impassioned, soaring melodies (and considerable difficulties for the performer), the Grand Adagio is now most often heard as a concert piece rather than as part of the opera.
Spanish Dance from La vida breve
MANUEL DE FALLA
Born November 23, 1876, Cadiz
Died November 14, 1946, Alta Grazia, Argentina
Falla wrote his two-act opera La vida breve (“The Brief Life”) in 1904-05, and it was first performed in Nice in 1913. Set in Granada, the opera tells the verismo-like tale of Salud’s betrayal by her lover Paco and her sudden death at the moment she accosts him at his wedding. The opera is seldom performed today, but its atmospheric music, tinged with Andalusian themes, has become popular in performances outside the opera.
The Dance takes place during Paco’s wedding in Act II. Falla sets it in the form of a jota, a lively dance in triple time. The opening section is a sinuous dance in 3/8, full of chromatic writing and swirling triplets and spiced with the sound of castanets and other percussion. This is set off by the heavy-footed central section, which pounds along menacingly before the return to the opening theme and the rush to the sizzling close.