Sonata for solo violin in G minor, Op. 27, No. 1
Belgian violinist and composer Eugène Ysaÿe stands as a bridge figure between the late Romantic era of virtuoso violinists such as Henri Vieuxtemps and Henryk Wieniawski (he studied with both of them), and twentieth-century composers such as Debussy, whom he championed. Much loved by violinists and composers alike, he pushed the technique of the violin to new heights, while at the same time promoting a style of playing that was perfectly idiomatic for his instrument. He was, in short, the violinist’s violinist.
Ysaÿe is said to have been inspired to write his Six Sonatas for solo violin, Op. 27, after hearing a concert by the violinist Josef Szigeti, in 1923. Each sonata in the series was written in honour of the style of contemporary violinists whom he knew. The Sonata No. 1 in G minor was dedicated to Szigeti himself, a scholarly, intellectual kind of player, well known for his performances of unaccompanied Bach. And, in fact, the movement structure of this first sonata of the Op. 27 series bears much in common with that of Bach’s own solo violin sonatas.
The opening of the first movement, despite its modernist harmonic vocabulary, is texturally very reminiscent of the triple- and quadruple-stop chordal texture that Bach used in his slow movements (e.g., the opening movement of the C major sonata that follows), with imitative melodies nestled inside the chordal architecture. This Bachian imitative texture alternates in the course of the movement withmore rhapsodic passages, rife with hair-raising technical difficulties. Noteworthy at the end of the movement are the tremolo double stops played sul ponticello.
Most Bachian of all in this sonata is the Fugato second movement, which features two-voice fugal-type entries in regular alternation with episodes in contrasting textures. Straining at the outer limits of violin technique are the six- (yes, you read that right, six) note chords on the final page.
The Allegretto poco scherzoso, marked amabile, is certainly likeable, to be sure. Its predictable, almost whistle-able tune, featuring a coy triplet figure imitated between the top and bottom layers of the texture, might even set your foot a-tapping. Its contrasting sections are indeed just that: one of them in parallel fourths and fifths is strongly reminiscent of Debussy.
If a Baroque model were to be proposed for the brashly rhythmic Allegro fermo last movement, it would have to be the equally strutting Gavotte from Bach’s French Suite No. 5. Operating under the premise that one note should never be used when three would do, Ysaÿe ends his sonata with a burst of blunt rhythmic energy that pays homage to the hemiola patterns of Baroque rhythm, while fully engaging the aspirations of the modern virtuoso violinist.
J. S. Bach
Sonata No. 3 in C major, BWV 1005
If polyphonic music was not meant to be played on the violin, Johann Sebastian Bach didn’t get the e-mail. His Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin, BWV 1001-1006, completed sometime before 1720, reveal clearly the scope of his ambition in this regard. The six works in the collection are admired today not just for their ingenious exploitationof the multi-voice capabilities of the instrument, but also for their skillful control of melodic lines and impressive large- scale musical architecture.
Strangely enough, these pieces, which form the bedrock of the modern violin repertoire, were virtually unknown until violinist Joseph Joachim began playing them towards the end of the nineteenth century. The recordings he made of some of them in 1903, available on You Tube, make for fascinating listening.
The Sonata No. 3 in C major, BWV 1005, stands apart from the set by its sheer scale. Written in the four- movement pattern of the sonata da chiesa (slow-fast-slow- fast), its first two movements are paired as a prelude and fugue while its last two present the violin in the roles of lyric singer and virtuoso performer.
The Adagio that opens the work features a pervasive dotted rhythm. This droning uniformity of this rhythmic pulse, while giving the movement an air of solemnity, also serves to throw into relief the non-rhythmic elements at play in this movement (e.g., how the amount of sound issuing from the instrument expands dramatically within a few bars from a single note to a full quadruple-stop chordal texture). With rhythmic variety largely factored out of the listening experience, the ear is all the more drawn, as well, to how the harmonic patterns of tension and release propel musical interest forward. The well-known Prelude in C major from Book 1 of the Well-Tempered Clavier features just this type of rhythmic uniformity, used in the same way.
The mighty jaw-dropping fugue that follows is where unwary listeners of a certain age are advised to keep a close grip on their dentures. At 354 measures, this surely must count as one of the longest fugues ever written. Its fugue subject is taken from the opening phrase of the chorale, Komm, heiliger Geist, and its countersubject is a series of evenly descending chromatic half notes – at least that’s how it starts out. About halfway through, Bach ups the intellectual ante in a passage marked al reverso, in which the fugue subject and its countersubject look in the mirror and suddenly become the inverse of what they started out to be: the countersubject now climbs by chromatic half notes, and every note of the subject is the mirror opposite of what it was before. A literal repeat of the opening fugal exposition rounds off the work, providing structural balance to its musical architecture.
Lyric relief comes in the Largo, a simple aria sung out in a two-voice texture with balanced phrases and with a clear harmonic underpinning. The last movement, Allegro assai, is a tour de force of implied part-writing, spinning its two- and three-voice textures at dazzling speed out of a single running line.
From Signs, Games and Messages
Signs, Games and Messages is a cycle of musical aphorisms which Hungarian composer György Kurtág has been amassing for decades, a collection which he is constantly revising and adding to. These brief musical thoughts have been compared to short “diary entries” but their intensity is anything but casual. As a fervent admirer of both J. S. Bach and Irish playwright Samuel Beckett, Kurtág uses the very brevity of these emotionally raw, often playful pieces to hint at a more timeless dimension of existence.
In the words of the American composer Stephen Eddins: “Each movement takes a striking, attention-grabbing idea,plays with it very briefly and then moves on before it wears out its welcome.”
Sonata for unaccompanied violin
This work was commissioned by Yehudi Menuhin (1916- 1999) and premiered by him in 1944 at a concert inCarnegie Hall, attended by the composer. A “fiendishly difficult work” is how the conductor Antal Dorati described it. Menuhin himself confessed that he blanched when he first saw the score: “it seemed to me almost unplayable,” he wrote in his memoirs.
The chief difficulties of the piece result not just from the thickness of its multiple-stop texture and unconventional harmonic vocabulary, but also from the densely contrapuntal writing that characterizes much of the score. As the writer of one doctoral dissertation on the work’s thorny technical challenges dryly observed: “It is not very common for violin players to practice dissonant double- stops such as major and minor seconds, tritones and ninths, in their daily practice routine”.
Given the fiercely contrapuntal nature of the texture, it should not be surprising that the shadow of Bach hovers majestically over the work as a whole. Its overall design in four movements – with a fugal second movement, a lyrical third movement, and a fleet-paced fourth – parallels that of works such as Bach’s Sonata in C major, BWV1005. Moreover, the stately rhythm of its opening Tempo di ciaccona pays tribute to the famous chaconne from Bach’s Partita in D minor, BWV 1004.
The first movement is not a chaconne, however. The term merely refers to the pace of the movement, not its formal design. It is, in fact, in sonata form, with a descending melodic pattern as its second theme and a development section much obsessed with the double-dotted rhythmic figure of the opening.
The second movement has been described as a “fugal fantasy” rather than a strict fugue. Characterized by Menuhin as “the most aggressive, even brutal music,that I play,” this movement gives the measure of how radically different Bartók’s take on fugal procedure is from the Baroque view of the genre as an ingenious Times crossword puzzle in music.
The third movement, Melodia, is a lyrical modernist aria in A-B-A form that never rises above the dynamic level of mezzo piano. The opening section is monophonic, its melody haunted by eerie echoes in harmonics. The contrasting B section is largely written in double stops with a near-constant flutter of tremolos.
The last movement is a rondo which alternates a moto perpetuo in sixteenth-note motion with sections of a more varied rhythmic and textural character. Given the acerbic harshness of the harmonic vocabulary in this work, the question has been asked: is the pure G major chord that ends this movement ironic?
Notes by Donald G. Gíslason, Ph.D.