Program Notes: Ning Feng
Ludwig van Beethoven: Violin sonata no. 1 in D major, Op. 12, no. 1
Ludwig van Beethoven wrote his first violin sonatas, a set of three (Op. 12) in 1797-98. Six more sonatas appeared by early 1803, and one more in 1812. Although we refer to these ten works as “violin sonatas,” in the original scores the music is invariably identified as being “for the harpsichord or fortepiano and a violin” (rather than the other way around). Such was the case with most eighteenth-century works of this type, but hardly true with Beethoven, where we can see in even the first sonata the nearly equal partnership of the two instruments. Graceful themes, transparent textures and traditional accompaniment figures are found in abundance. Yet mingling with these attributes we also find a robustness and a boldly independent spirit straining to burst the bonds of classical restraint and moderation. This sonata-form movement combines a number of musical ideas in an atmosphere of brilliance and strength. The slow central movement is an orthodox theme and variations set in A major. Four variations, including one (the third) in the minor mode with extremes of dynamic contrast, are built from the sweetly tender theme. The finale is a rondo, written in a lively, playful style, and it incorporates several examples of the rough humour for which Beethoven later became renowned.
Edward Elgar: Violin sonata in E minor, Op. 82
Elgar’s father, in addition to owning a music shop, tuned pianos and played the organ at church, so it was almost inevitable that young Edward would learn these instruments. But the violin was the instrument he truly loved. He played it in many amateur orchestras, and for a time planned on a solo career. Hence, it is not surprising to find a rather large number of works for violin from his early years as a composer. His first published piece was a Romance for violin and orchestra. Opus numbers 3, 4, 9, 12, 15, 17, 22 and 24 are also for violin with either piano or orchestral accompaniment. His Violin concerto (Op. 61) is one of the most significant of the twentieth century. Yet, unaccountably, the Violin sonata is neglected in almost inverse proportion to the fame of the concerto. This sonata, Elgar’s last work for violin, written in 1918, is a 25-minute masterpiece imbued with the spontaneous lyricism of Schubert and the passionate warmth of Brahms.
Elgar himself left this concise description of his sonata: “The first movement is bold and vigorous, then a fantastic, curious movement with a very expressive middle section; a melody for the violin they say it is as good or better than anything I have done in the expressive way … the last movement is very broad and soothing, like the last movement of the Second Symphony.”
Manuel de Falla: Suite Populaires Espagnole
Manuel de Falla regarded the promotion of Spanish music as his mission in life, and his Siete canciónes populaires españoles (Seven Spanish Folkongs) are just one of the many manifestations of this purpose. The texts are anonymous, but the tunes have been traced to actual popular songs from all over Spain. Written in 1914-1915 for voice and piano, the songs were first heard in Madrid sung by Luisa Vela with the composer at the piano on January 14, 1915. They were later orchestrated by the composer’s friend Ernesto Halffter in 1938-1945 and by Luciano Berio in 1978. Additionally there exist arrangements for violin (by the Polish violinist Paul Kochanski in 1924), for viola, and for cello, in each case with the string instrument replacing voice. In this form, the songs are sometimes known as the Suite populaire espagnole (minus the second song, “Seguidilla murciana”).
“El paño moruno” (The Moorish cloth) is set to a pulsating Moorish rhythm from the southeastern province of Murcia. The words to the song deplore the stain on the lovely cloth that will cause its selling price to plummet.
In “Asturiana” a weeping woman seeks consolation under a pine tree, which itself breaks into tears out of compassion. The melody comes from Asturias, in Spain’s far north.
From Aragon, another northern province, comes a “Jota” in rapid triple meter, about two lovers in a clandestine relationship.
“Nana” is a lullaby from the southernmost province of Andalusia, whose songs have a decidedly oriental cast.
“Canción” (song) is another love song, this one about eyes with traitorous qualities.
“Polo” is a wailing lament from Andalusia over the heartache of unrequited love. The fiery flamenco idiom will be familiar to those who know de Falla’s famous ballet score The Three-Cornered Hat.
Igor Stravinsky: Duo Concertante for violin and piano
The Duo Concertant is Stravinsky’s only original work for violin and piano, composed in 1931 and 1932 as one component of a program for the composer and the violinist Samuel Dushkin to play on European concert tours. The first performance was given in Berlin on October 28, 1932. (A 1933 performance with these artists can be heard on YouTube.) George Balanchine choreographed it in 1972.
The titles of the five movements suggest inspiration from the pastoral poets of antiquity, and Stravinsky himself claimed that “the spirit and form” of the Duo Concertant were determined by his love of this poetry. However, as ever with this composer’s comments, one must be wary of taking them too literally. In fact, with the exception of the “Gigue,” there is little to connect the titles with the character of the music. Abram Loft, first violinist of the Fine Arts Quartet for many years, suggests that “the Duo Concertante will show to best effect as an oasis of coolness and reserve, surrounded in concert …by works of more outspokenly ‘Romantic’ quality.”
Franz Waxman: Carmen Fantasie
Ever since the premiere of Bizet’s Carmen in 1875, composers from A to Z have been creating fantasies, variations, paraphrases and transcriptions based on this opera, probably the most popular ever written. Among the best known works of this type for violin and orchestra (or piano) is the Carmen Fantasie by Franz Waxman, a composer best remembered for his 144 Hollywood film scores (Rebecca, The Philadelphia Story, Sunset Boulevard, Rear Window, Peyton Place, etc.). Waxman wrote his Carmen Fantasie for Jascha Heifetz in 1946. He also used this music as part of his film score for Humoresque.
Program notes by Robert Markow, 2013.