Sonata No. 2 in G major for violin and piano, Op. 13
Edvard Grieg (1843-1907) 

Norway's greatest composer was not a specialist in large forms.  Rather, he excelled in picturesque miniatures, where his gift for tone color and melding Norwegian folk music with his own melodic ideas reach their highest plane. This sonata is his first mature work in a traditional Western form, and one of Grieg’s most successful essays in unifying a multi-movement piece strongly flavored by nationalism.

He composed it in three weeks during the summer of 1867, while he and his bride, Nina Hagerup, were on their honeymoon. Apart from a gloomy slow introduction to the first movement, the balance of the sonata overflows with joy. It is also a decidedly Norwegian work. Grieg does not quote any Norwegian folk music, but the style and rhythms echo the indigenous music of his Scandinavian homeland.

Grieg acknowledged that this was the most overtly nationalistic of his three violin sonatas. What distinguishes this one is that he fused the nationalist elements so skillfully within the framework of Germanic tradition. His first movement is a well-constructed sonata form; the slow movement a clear ternary structure (with a violin cadenza augmenting the reprise of the A-section), and the finale is a sonata-rondo. In an 1881 letter to Aimar Gronwald, an early biographer, he wrote:

I don’t deny the exaggerated Norwegian passion of my youth but, as a
modern artist, what I am striving for is that which is universal – or, more
correctly, that which is individual. If the result is national, it is because
the individual is national.

So what are those Norwegian elements? They begin in the first movement. Following the lugubrious slow introduction in G minor, Grieg moves to a lively springar, a Norwegian couples dance. Springars are traditionally played on the Hardanger fiddle.  

Typical of Norway’s west and south, the hardanger has a second set of strings that vibrate sympathetically when the instrument is played. Hardangers were especially popular in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Sometimes the instrument was tuned abnormally, sounding a third higher than a conventional violin. Traditional hardanger music featured elaborate ornamentation in the melodies, drones, and sometimes wild dissonance. Hardanger style recurs in the slow movement’s improvisatory quasi-cadenza. 

Anyone who knows the Grieg Piano Concerto will immediately recognize a signature Grieg motive - a descending three-note figure – which he uses in all three movements as a connective, cyclic device. (Some writers call it the ‘Grieg theme.’) This device reinforces the sonata’s distinctly Norwegian flavor. 

Grieg thought highly of this sonata and played it in concert with prominent violinists in Norway and elsewhere in Europe. He dedicated it to the composer and violinist Johan Svendsen who, like Grieg, had studied in Leipzig, then settled in Oslo. That may account for the fact that it is so well written for the violin, since Grieg was not a string player. 

Melodically rich, the sonata has freshness, spontaneity, and unexpected mood changes that beguile the ear. It deserves to take a more central role in the violin/piano repertoire. 

Sonata for Violin and Piano (1943)
Francis Poulenc (1899-1963)

Poulenc launched his career as part of the group dubbed ‘Les Six’ in 1920. (The other five were Louis Durey, Arthur Honegger, Germaine Tailleferre, Darius Milhaud, and Georges Auric.) Their iconoclastic, eccentric leader was Erik Satie; their spokesman and champion was Jean Cocteau. These gifted young musicians shared two principal goals. One was thwarting the Impressionist movement in music and the conservatism represented by such older generation composers as Vincent d’Indy and Gabriel Fauré. The other goal was celebrating the very aspects of popular culture that the Conservatoire crowd disdained: cabarets, music-halls, night clubs, the music of the streets.

Although each of Les Six went his own direction during the 1920s, Poulenc retained aspects of the group’s philosophy throughout his career. As he matured, his music gained depth. He made extraordinary contributions to sacred music and art song. His numerous duo sonatas and chamber compositions also enrich the repertoire of nearly every instrument in the orchestra.

Poulenc was more comfortable writing for woodwinds than for strings. His only two chamber works from the 1940s -- this violin sonata and a cello sonata completed in 1948 — were troubling compositions for him. He wrote both at the behest of gifted virtuosi: the cello sonata for Pierre Fournier and the violin sonata for Ginette Neveu. Born in 1919, Neveu was a full generation Poulenc’s junior, and died in a plane crash shortly after her thirtieth birthday. By all reports, she was one of the brilliant stars of her generation, and her premature death was a great loss. 

Since the late 1930s, Neveu had been pressing Poulenc for a sonata. He finally acquiesced in 1942, completing the work in 1943; publication followed in 1944. He dedicated the sonata to the memory of the Spanish poet and dramatist Federico García Lorca (1898-1936), who had been tortured and executed by Francisco Franco’s troops during the Spanish Civil War. To memorialize Lorca was courageous at this time. The Nazis occupied France; Lorca was homosexual (like Poulenc); and he was a victim of a fascist regime. At least one of Poulenc’s biographers, Keith Daniel, feels that the sonata reflects both its composer’s patriotism and the misery of occupied France. The slow movement, Intermezzo, bears an epigraph from Lorca’s poetry: ‘La guitare fait pleurer les songes’ [“The guitar makes dreams weep”]. It is clearly intended to evoke a Spanish atmosphere. Ironically, the piano part is more guitar-like than the violin.  

Excessively modest, Poulenc credited Ginette Neveu with ‘delectable violinistic detail’ in the sonata, but decried its ‘artificially pathetic tone’ and lack of lyricism. Overly critical of himself, he wrote to his friend André Schaeffner, a musicologist:

It is really not bad, I feel, and in any case quite different from the
never-ending line-of-violin-melody sonatas written in France during
the 19th century. Ah, but Brahms’s sonatas are lovely! I did not know them
well. A proper balance of sound between violin and piano can only be obtained
by treating them equally. 

The excerpt from the letter is revealing because it shows that, even a quarter-century after the formation of ‘Les Six,’ Poulenc was still rebelling from the perceived strictures of his French romantic predecessors in the realm of instrumental music, and specifically violin sonatas: Franck, Fauré, even Debussy. His juxtaposition of vigorous, plucky themes with ravishing tunes straight out of a smoky dance hall is quite striking, particularly in the outer movements.  In keeping with his observation to Schaeffner, the balance between the two instruments is Solomonic. 

Chaconne from the Unaccompanied Partita No.2 in D minor, BWV1005
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) 

Bach composed six unaccompanied cello suites and six Brandenburg concerti.  His solo keyboard works include six English Suites, six French Suites, and six Partitas.  Among the violin compositions, there are six Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord, and six unaccompanied works.  And there the pattern begins to vary, for he called three of them sonatas and the other three partitas.  Sets of six works were common in the early 18th century, but in Bach's case he seemed to exhaust his interest in a particular genre after each of these incomparable groups.  He never returned to the concerto grosso after the Brandenburgs, for example.  Similarly, there are no additional solo violin sonatas or partitas after the group catalogued as BWV 1001-1006.
Each of Bach's solo violin sonatas is in four movements, following the accepted Baroque church sonata pattern of slow-fast-slow-fast.  All three have a fugue as the second movement.  The three partitas vary more in their structure, although each is partly based on popular dance movements of the era.  Only one, however, has a Ciaccona:  the second partita.  It concludes the partita, and is longer than the previous four movements combined.  

The Chaconne (to use its more common French spelling) is arguably the most celebrated movement in the violin literature.  A series of 64 continuous variations, it places extraordinary demands both on the player and the listener.  Bach composed his partitas in 1720 (the manuscript, which survives, is dated), but the pieces were not published until 1802.  Since then, the list of editors reads like a who's who of violinists, including Ferdinand David (edition published 1843), Joseph Hellmesberger (1865), Arnold Rosé (1901), Joseph Joachim and Andreas Moser (1908), Leopold Auer (1917), Jenö Hubay (1921), Carl Flesch (1930), and Ivan Galamian (1971).  

Mendelssohn arranged the Chaconne as a concerto movement; Schumann wrote a piano accompaniment for it; Ferruccio Busoni arranged it for solo piano.  Numerous other chamber and orchestral versions proliferated during the 19th century, but few of them preserved the clarity and intimacy of Bach's original.  One noteworthy exception is Johannes Brahms, who arranged the Chaconne for Clara Schumann in 1879 as a left hand piece, in order to give her right hand a rest during concerts.  In a letter to Clara, Brahms described Bach's piece with reverence.

To me the Chaconne is one of the most beautiful, incredible compositions.  On one staff, and for a small instrument, this man pours out a world full of the most profound thoughts and most powerful emotions. . . . If one cannot avail oneself of the most outstanding violinist, perhaps the greatest enjoyment of the Chaconne is to be achieved in one's mind.  

Bach's simple four-bar harmonic progression makes the Chaconne comparatively easy to follow from a listening standpoint.  We do not realize how emotionally draining his music is until the ineffably tender variations in D-major offer temporary respite from the stern atmosphere of the whole.

Lotus Land is Kreisler’s adaptation of a piano piece by Cyril Scott (1879-197), who was known as ‘the English Debussy.’ The original, from 1905, is an example of British impressionism. Pentatonic harmonies, including black key glissandos, give it an Asian flavor. The serene atmosphere grows progressively more sonorous, escalating to an impressive climax. Kreisler arranged for violin and piano in 1922. 

La Campanella is also a Kreisler arrangement. Niccolò Paganini’s Second Violin Concerto is celebrated for its finale, based on an old Italian song and subtitled “La Campanella.” It means ‘little bell;’ the French called the movement Rondo à la clochette. Paganini actually wrote the word ‘cloche’ into the score at the points where the violin emulates three high-pitched bell tones. A lively rondo flavored with Gypsy sonorities, La Campanella became one of Paganini’s signature pieces. The violinist’s line dances like a spirit possessed, in the dazzling tour de force of bravura that so awed Paganini’s audience. In the hands of the right violinist, it still works today.
Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) 

During the 1920s, Maurice Ravel was a frequent visitor to England, where he regularly attended musical events of all types.  According to his biographer Arbie Orenstein, Tzigane had its origins in, of all the unlikely locations, a private British musicale during a 1922 visit.  On the evening in question, the Hungarian violinist Jelly d'Arányi (a grand-niece of the great 19th-century violinist Joseph Joachim) performed Ravel's violin/cello sonata with Hans Kindler.  Taken with her playing, the composer asked d'Arányi to perform some Gypsy melodies.  She complied, and Ravel grew increasingly absorbed in the unfamiliar scale patterns and compelling rhythms of the Eastern European tradition.  Fascinated by what he heard, he encouraged her to continue until the wee hours of the morning.  By then, he had resolved to compose a violin work especially for her.  

Fully two years later, the piece took final shape.  Ravel only completed it only days before d'Arányi premiered it on April 26, 1924.  In the interim, he had drawn further inspiration from the virtuoso music of Paganini and Liszt.  Tzigane, his synthesis of Gypsy flavor with bravura technique, is a landmark in the violin literature.  This work admirably demonstrates his uncanny ability to assimilate and process the musical style of another country, as he had already done so successfully with Spanish music.

Tzigane opens with an extended, dramatic introduction.  Ravel’s structure is episodic, as the subtitle "Concert Rhapsody" implies.  Despite its dazzling difficulty, the piece is remarkably well written for violin, presenting formidable challenges with pizzicati, quadruple stops, virtuoso figuration, and a concluding perpetual motion clearly related to the finale of Ravel’s Violin Sonata (1923-1927).  

Ravel orchestrated Tzigane several months after he completed the original version for violin and piano.  In that form, it is the closest he came to composing a violin concerto.  He also arranged Tzigane in a fascinating third version employing an early type of prepared piano using an attachment called luthéal, which was intended to make the piano approximate the sound of the cimbalom, a large hammer dulcimer used in Hungarian Gypsy and popular music.  

By Laurie Shulman © 2018
First North American Serial Rights Only