Sonatina for violin & piano in A minor D. 385
It humbles me to think, paraphrasing Tom Lehrer, that when Schubert was my age, he had already been dead for several decades. Lest I forget, there are his first three sonatas for violin and piano, which he composed in a sprint of creative friskiness during the spring of 1816, at the tender age of 19. Youthful as these works may be, their naïve charm shows how thoroughly he had absorbed the models left by Mozart, and something of the path being charted by Beethoven, whose work he much admired.
But why, enquiring minds will want to know, are these works known as sonatinas when they have every claim to the more dignified title of sonata? The answer lies in their publication history. In the bohemian margins of Viennese life in which young Franz lived, not every work issuing from his pen found a place in print, at least not during his lifetime. In fact most didn´t. The manuscripts were gradually fed to publishers after his death and it was they, the publishers, who christened them with names suitable to the market of the time. So the works which Schubert himself referred to as his violin sonatas, when published by Anton Diabelli in 1836 as the composer’s Op. 137, were marketed as “Sonatinas” in order to plump up sales in the expanding market for amateur music-making.
The choice of A minor as the key of the second in this set is a nod toward Beethovenian drama. Even more so is the opening texture of half notes against a throbbing left-hand chordal accompaniment, immediately recognizable from the opening of Beethoven’s Sonata in E major, Op. 14, No. 1. Also dramatically Beethovenian are the widely spaced intervals of the piano´s melodic line, followed by wider, even more daring leaps in the violin. It is not long, however, before Schubert’s characteristic songfulness surfaces in the tuneful second theme, following which a fair bit of fan-fluttering in the piano texture completes the musical material treated in this sonata-form movement. The development section is short and uneventful, the recapitulation without surprizes.
The second movement Andante opens with a melody of great dignity and poise. Constructed out of simple note values and expressively ending its phrases with feminine endings, this melody gives the violin ample scope to charm the ear with its singing tone. A contrasting section with more varied harmonic colouring and smaller note values alternates with the opening theme to create a formal structure of balanced repose.
The Menuetto is diminutive in form and emotional range. While formally in a frowning D minor it constantly wants to lean over and smell the roses in F major.
The last movement is the most compositionally intense of the work. Although it opens in the manner of the other movements with a simple singable melody, it soon works itself into a froth of thematic development that lets us know who studied counterpoint, and who didn´t.
Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata for violin & piano in C minor Op. 30 No. 2
You are always in for a good ride when Beethoven writes in C minor. There is something about this key that brings out his ‘classic’ persona as the composer capable of developing fragmentary, enigmatic utterances into explosions of fist-shaking defiance. And more often than not, he also surprizes us with his grandeur of spirit by offering remarkable displays of lyrical eloquence, and even playful humour, in the same work.
On this score, the Sonata in C minor Op. 30, No. 2 will not disappoint. Its tense and brooding outer movements enclose two much more unbuttoned inner movements that provide repose and distraction from the overarching mood of psychological turmoil. Composed in the spring of 1802 under the composer’s recognition of his increasing deafness, the three sonatas of Op. 30 were published the following year as “Three Sonatas for the Pianoforte with the Accompaniment of Violin.”
This decades-old naming practice points back to a time when free-standing piano sonatas were published with an optional, and relatively easy violin part patched over top to provide increased opportunities for participation in a home-entertainment setting. Beethoven’s violin part, however, is anything but optional or amateur in nature. It dialogues fully and freely with the piano throughout, and the number of double and triple stops in the score indicates clearly that it was composed for the professional violinist. That said, the wide-ranging piano part would have to count as the major contributor to the rich carpet of sound characterizing the work as a whole.
The first movement shows Beethoven playing with his thematic material like a cat playing with a mouse. It opens with a menacing motive that ends with a throw-away gesture. Pauses add to the suspense until the violin takes up this material, with the piano rumbling below. Contrast comes with the second theme, a simple little march of Mozartean stamp that adds a dotted rhythm to the movement’s thematic mix. The exposition is not repeated but, as if by compensation, the recapitulation has an extended coda, an innovation that was to become a hallmark of Beethoven’s expansion of sonata form.
The second movement in ternary form is a study in calm, tranquil lyricism, its middle section exploring slightly more dark, minor-mode territory than its dignified opening theme. Remarkable in this movement is the variety of decorative patterns that Beethoven finds to give a richly textured background to his melodies.
The third movement is an emotionally healthy scherzo in the untroubled key of C major, full of musical wit and compositional surprizes. The grace notes of the opening theme contribute to a skipping, tripping momentum that is quickly subverted by accents on unexpected beats of the bar. The Trio plays humorous havoc with the squareness of its canonic melody by confusing the beat count with off-beat accents in the lead-up to the cadence.
Drama returns in a big way in the sonata-rondo finale. It opens with a rumble and a harmonic hand grenade—an augmented 6th chord—tossed into the air, requiring immediate resolution to the dominant. The intervening refrains are generally less confrontational, rarely rising above the threat-level of wicked merriment, but a furious coda reminds us never to underestimate the enormous reserves of emotional energy this composer has to draw on.
Sonata for viola & piano in F minor Op. 120, No. 1
We owe this sonata to the interest that Brahms had in the clarinet near the end of his life as a result of hearing clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld, principal clarinet of the Meiningen court orchestra. The two sonatas for clarinet or viola that he published in 1895 as his Op. 120 are among the very last works published during his lifetime, revealing his last thoughts on the form of the classical sonata.
The Sonata in F minor is a darkly lyrical work that exploits the low range of the viola. In the course of its four movements it moves from a mood of passionate yearning into steadily brighter emotional territory to end, exceptionally for a minor-key Brahms sonata, with a finale in the major mode.
We see the economy of Brahms’ musical thought at the very beginning of the first movement. While the wide-ranging melody presented by the viola in bar 5 is the apparent main theme of the movement, it is the opening motive, the first four notes of the short piano introduction of bars 1-4, that dominates musical discussion from start to finish. This simple motive is still echoing in the ear at the end of the coda, marked Sostenuto ed espressivo.
The mood of calm reflection continues into the second movement, Andante un poco adagio. Apart from the opening poco forte there are only two more bars of forte in the entire movement, which is dominated by the markings piano, dolce, espressivo and pianissimo. Remarkable in this movement is the thinly textured piano part, a scoring that allows the viola to sing out melodically throughout. This is especially important when the opening melody is repeated later on in the lowest range of the instrument.
The Allegretto grazioso third movement sees Brahms at his most grandfatherly in an affectionate intermezzo that can’t help but tip occasionally into a lilting Austrian Ländler. Even the darkish implications of its minor-mode middle section are lightened by the syncopated ‘rain-drop’ texture in the piano.
The bright mood so far established is given a firmer rhythmic base in the fourth movement, a rondo in the eye-brow-raising key of F major (for a sonata that began so seriously in F minor). The three bell-like repeated notes announced at its opening pop up everywhere in this exuberant finale, which is flecked by quicksilver changes of harmonic colour and joyously chummy exchanges between the two instruments.
Notes by Donald G. Gíslason, Ph.D.