Johann Sebastian Bach
Sonata in A major, BWV 1015
Before taking up his post as Cantor of the Thomaskirche in Leipzig in 1723, Bach served as Kapellmeister to Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen (1694-1728). The young Prince was of the Calvinist persuasion, and thus had little need for church music, but he was also an avid music-lover and a competent viola da gamba player who spent lavishly on a musical establishment, his Kapelle, that Bach directed from 1717 to 1723. And so it was that during his tenure there Bach composed the majority of his works for violin, including a good half-dozen sonatas for violin and keyboard.
The four movements of the Sonata in A major are laid out in the slow-fast-slow-fast pattern of the ‘church’ sonata (sonata da chiesa), so named for its generally abstract style, considered more suitable for performance in a solemn setting than the dance-dominated ‘chamber’ sonata (sonata da camera). In this work Bach writes in the prevailing style of the trio sonata—normally featuring a lead solo instrument accompanied by clearly subordinate harmonic in-fill on the keyboard and bass reinforcement by some low-sounding instrument—but he enriches the genre by creating three independent melodic lines on two instruments: the violin and the two hands of the keyboard player.
This is evident in the warmly gracious first movement (without tempo indication) which opens with a luxuriantly long-limbed melody, deliciously ambivalent in its rhythmic pulse (is it 6/8 or 3/4?), answered immediately in the keyboard’s right hand, and then again in the left. The deliberately varied mixture of note lengths and beat patterns encourages you to forget the passage of time while gracious details such as simultaneous chains of trills in both instruments add a decorative element of Roccoco refinement to the texture.
The Allegro assai second movement is much more strongly rhythmic and features the propulsive motoric rhythms of the concerto grosso, with the keyboard often taking the lead in a constant chatter of 16ths while the violin trots blithely along commenting in a uniform pattern of 8ths. The violin’s breathless volley of rapid-fire arpeggios in the middle section is reminiscent of a Brandenburg Concerto cadenza.
Gentle pathos and lyrical introspection mark the Andante un poco third movement in the minor mode. Plaintively vocal in style, this movement is nevertheless structured with astonishing rigour. Listen for the strict two-voice canon between the violin and keyboard’s right hand.
The final Presto is in two-part form (with repeats) like a dance movement, but elaborated in a free three-voice fugue texture in each half. In this concluding movement Bach manages to gift his pleasure-loving prince with a finale that combines regal dignity and courtly decorum with the toe-tapping cheerfulness of a folk tune suitable for whistling.
Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata in C minor, Op. 30 No. 2
In this sonata we catch Beethoven at the top of his game in a work of remarkable coherence, despite its wide variety of moods and wildly divergent styles of expression. Its outer movements, in particular, are chock-full of emotional mood swings while its inner movements simply wade ever deeper and deeper into the emotional tone they establish at their outset.
The piano is more than a full partner in the proceedings and its tone dominates the sonata as a whole. All four movements open with solo statements from the piano, and while the violin participates fully in the presentation and development of themes, it merely adds to, but never overshadows, the piano’s potential to create sonic theatre on its own terms. The piano purrs and growls in this work. It skips, it hops. By turns it whistles a merry tune and then tenderly pleads for understanding. The work of giving a place to the keyboard in the violin sonata, begun by Bach, is complete in this C minor sonata.
Of course, the key signature of C minor in Beethoven is tantamount to an in-flight announcement to fasten your seat-belt and expect turbulence. And Ludwig van B. does not disappoint. The work opens in a mood of mystery and quiet urgency with a furtive chordal motive in the piano that turns into a menacing murmur surging up from the bass at the entry of the violin. Strident, sabre-slashing chords mark the transition to the second theme that (anticlimactically) turns out to be a pert little military march, reminiscent of Non più andrai, the bass aria from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro evoking Cherubino’s future life in the army. The opera parallel continues as this theme then moves to the bass to rumble around in classic opera buffa style. Throughout the movement high drama plays out next to good-natured buffoonery, interspersed with passages of sheer rhythmic exhilaration. Beethoven clearly loves his material here and won’t let it go, plunging into an almost developmental coda of some length before the final chords of this movement.
The Adagio cantabile that follows paints a noble portrait of deep-seated emotion lacquered over, and held in check, by aristocratic restraint, its opening gesture of pleading repeated notes suggesting far more than the elegant, balanced phrases of its melody can express. Violin and piano become ever more texturally entwined as the movement progresses, with the piano eventually contributing a rich carpet of sweeping and swirling figurations beneath the cantilena of the violin above.
The Scherzo simply oozes with personality of a goofy, knuckle-headed sort that wins you over immediately. Its chirpy high spirits and galumphing rhythm, with phrases neatly cut up into bite-size pieces, bespeaks the country yokel but its playful toying with the metrical accent gives a hint of a winking intelligence lurking behind this pose, especially when the trio turns out to be in canon.
The sonata-rondo finale returns to the arena of high-tension theatre, beginning with its very first bars: a bass rumble that crescendos to explode into an exclamation point in the higher register, followed by hushed chords tiptoeing through the mid-range. It is hard not to think that in the many contrasting sections of this rondo, in its quicksilver alternations of major and minor mode, its deadpan changes of mood between high drama and skippy-dippy cheerfulness, Beethoven might well be having a laugh at the expense of sonata form itself.
Sonata in G minor
The sound of Debussy’s music confounded many of his contemporaries. How, they asked, could what he composed actually be called music? After all, it had so little of what, since the 1600s, had been the operating principle of Western music: tonal tension. Tonal tension was that feeling that certain chords wanted, needed, felt the inner urge to proceed to other chords, and that when they did so the music went from a state of tension to one of relaxation—in other words, that dissonance had resolved to consonance.
Debussy didn’t just break the established rules of harmony. He ignored them. His use of parallel streams of identically structured chords blurred the distinction between harmony and melody. His textures seemed like lush exotic gardens of sound, with each melodic phrase a flowering plant swaying in the breeze, combining with others to create an overall impression. The comparison with the emerging school of Impressionist painters was all too obvious.
And yet, for all his painterly credentials as a musical pictorialist, we find Debussy at the end of his life writing sonatas, the most rule-laden form (apart from fugue) that Western music had produced, the genre most associated with the musical Establishment. The Sonata for Violin and Piano, Debussy’s last major work, was composed in 1917 as part of a projected set of six sonatas for chamber instruments, of which only the first three were completed before his death.
It has been suggested that the title ‘sonata’ is equivalent here to ‘Untitled’ as the title of a painting. It simply refers to an absence of acknowledged subject matter, meaning that there was no ‘picture’ in mind when writing it. Others see Debussy as returning to the time of Rameau, when the term ‘sonata’ was used to mean simply a purely instrumental piece, something played rather than sung, but not necessarily a work following a prescribed formal plan.
Whatever the significance of the label, we find Debussy’s trademark sense of understatement everywhere in this work, which unfolds in a subdued atmosphere of soft to medium-soft dynamic levels, imbued nonetheless with considerable emotional warmth. Phrases tend to be short and often unpredictable, either coquettishly playful or tender and pensive.
The Allegro vivo first movement opens in a manner strikingly similar to that of the Franck Violin Sonata in A major, laying down a reflecting pool of keyboard colour over which the violin enters with a melodic motive of slowly rocking 3rds. This melodic rocking motion—in 3rds, in 4ths and then in 5ths— repeats often in the more active sections of the movement, which on the whole is nevertheless warmly melodic in tone.
The second movement tips its hat to the traditional sonata scherzo in a playful movement of wide melodic leaps and their opposite: insistent patterns of repeated notes.
The finale, Très animé, opens with a display of piano bravura, answered in the violin with the opening melody of the first movement. The breathless pace continues throughout, relieved only briefly in its middle section by the appearance of what one commentator has called a “drunken waltz”.
Rhapsody No. 1 Sz. 87
Bartók was not only a gifted composer and an accomplished pianist but also a dedicated ethnomusicologist who travelled deep into the rural outback of his native Hungary and surrounding regions to make recordings of villagers singing and playing the traditional music of their local areas. The authentic, raw-edged musical culture of turn-of-the-century peasant life in the Austro-Hungarian Empire is captured in these recordings, but it is also heard in the many works that Bartók composed based on the melodies and rhythms collected on these ethnomusicological field trips.
His first Rhapsody for Violin and Piano, composed in 1928, is one of these. Structured in two movements in the slow-fast (lassú-friss) pattern of Hungarian folk music, this work seeks to meld the disparate worlds of Eastern European village fiddling and Western European concert life. The style of violin playing is heavily influenced by the capricious improvisatory showmanship of Gypsy fiddle-playing while the piano, resonant with dense tone clusters, jangles with the metallic timbre of a rag-tag village band.
The first movement Lassú presents a strutting rising-scale melody in the Lydian mode (think: C major scale with F# instead of F) over a plodding piano part rife with drone tones, often more a sonic drum-beat than a melodic line. A middle section offers lyric contrast with a plangent lament derived from a Transylvanian folk tune, full of rhythmic ‘snaps’ in a quick short-long pattern.
The Friss is a series of dance tunes with no overall formal structure other than that of continually building up excitement, accelerando, till the end. The violin in this movement is pushed to ever greater exertions of virtuosic showmanship in pursuit of its rhapsodic goals. (Is it just me, or is the first tune not a dead ringer for the Shaker tune “Simple Gifts”?)
Donald G. Gíslason 2015