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Sonata in A Major for Violin and Continuo,
Op. 2, No. 2, RV 31
The Italian Baroque composer and virtuoso violinist Antonio Vivaldi is perhaps best known for his concertos (particularly The Four Seasons), sacred choral works, and operas. However, Vivaldi also penned scores of sonatas: about 60 of his solo sonatas survive, and around 40 of those are for violin and continuo (an accompanying part including a bass line and harmonies, typically played on a keyboard instrument). Both a priest and a teacher, Vivaldi worked at the Ospedale della Pietà, a home for abandoned children that also functioned as a convent and music school, from 1703 to 1715 and again from 1723 to 1740. A large number of his compositions – including many of his solo sonatas – were written for and performed by the female students living at the Pietà. In 1709 Vivaldi collected twelve of these sonatas as his Op. 2 and dedicated them to King Frederik IV of Denmark while the king was visiting Venice. The Sonata in A Major for Violin and Continuo is the second of the twelve.
Though relatively conservative both formally and texturally, the idiomatic violin writing and brilliant figuration have made this sonata a favorite among modern performers. Each movement is quite brief; the entire work only lasts about seven minutes. The first movement opens with a florid prelude, quickly followed by a vigorous capriccio. The second movement is a stylized take on a corrente, a quick triple-meter Italian dance. Lyrical lines and a melancholy mood characterize the third movement adagio while the violin takes on an almost vocal quality in its mournful melody. The fourth and final movement is once more a stylized version of a popular Baroque dance: the gig. This lively closing number is full of ornamentation, energy, and brilliance.
— Laney Boyd
Sonata No. 1 in D Major for Violin and Piano,
Op. 12, No. 1 Ludwig van
In 1797-98, having recently established himself in Vienna as a piano virtuoso (he was also no slouch at the violin and viola), Beethoven composed three sonatas for violin and piano. He dedicated them to Antonio Salieri, the celebrated opera composer with whom Beethoven was currently studying. While these pieces were all written in the high Classical style synonymous with both Haydn and Mozart, they contain many elements that reflect Beethoven’s contemporary, increasingly assertive, and heightened emotional style. These sonatas have in common three movements composed for skilled amateur performance, as well as equality in the pairing between violin and piano. Contemporary critics found the sonatas difficult to understand, and one critic even stated that listening to them was like “being lost in a forest.”
The first of these sonatas asserts itself in its first movement (marked Allegro con brio) with a distinct unison theme before the more lyrical second theme, played by the violin and continued by the piano. Beethoven’s jovial style, easily identifiable in his early-period writing, is evident with his conversational play between the two instruments. Similarly striking is his unexpected journey into the key of F major, which completely throws off one’s sense of a tonal center before ending the movement in the tonic of D major. The second movement is a theme and variations, marked Andante con moto. This contrasting middle movement in A major states a lovely two-part theme in the piano, echoed by the violin. The ensuing variations feature each player, highlight the parallel key of A minor, and eventually bring the emotionally varied movement to a gentle, languid close. The final movement, Rondo: Allegro, is in the compound meter of 6/8 and features several of Beethoven’s idiosyncratic compositional techniques, including sforzandos on the off-beats and increasing use of syncopation. It also contains a hint at the first movement’s utterance of F major, as well as not one but two false endings! The dance-like exuberance of the final movement brings the piece to a delightful and affectionately rustic close.
— Jay Gummert
Fantasiestücke, Op. 73
The great German Romantic composer Robert Schumann worked in virtually every major form of his day, from grand-scale works such as operas and symphonies to short character piano pieces and art songs, and a vast catalogue of orchestral, choral, and chamber pieces. Schumann was a lifelong lover of literature and he often included literary elements in his work. Much of his music has a narrative quality complete with starkly contrasting moods and abrupt changes in character and figuration. A Romantic through and through, Schumann subscribed to the idea that creative expression is a direct result of each individual artist’s unfettered ingenuity and imagination. Perhaps this goes some way toward explaining the title Fantasiestücke, or “Fantasy Pieces” (Schumann also gave this name to his Op. 12, which includes eight short piano works). Written over just a few days in 1849, Op. 73 was originally composed for clarinet and piano. Two later arrangements substituted violin or cello for the clarinet
Fantasiestücke, Op. 73 seems to function almost as an instrumental version of a song cycle: it is presented as a series of poetic miniatures unified harmonically and thematically despite strong juxtaposition of moods. The first piece marked “tenderly and with expression” is dreamily doleful and supported by supremely expressive beauty in the piano accompaniment. Its minor tonality brightens to major as the piece comes to an end, setting up the “lively, light” marking of the second piece. This central work is characterized by spirited energy and quick, agile passages in both the violin and piano. The final piece titled “quick and with fire” is marked by urgent intensity interspersed with more melodious, contemplative passages. However, frenzied passion eventually takes over, and the speed steadily increases as the instruments drive toward a euphoric, decisive close.
— Laney Boyd
Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 2 in G Major
Of all the pieces on today’s program, Maurice Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Piano in G Major is the only one that seeks not to blend and complement the voices of the violin and piano but rather to actively pit the instruments against one another. Ravel had a highly developed sense of instrumental color and believed the violin and piano were fundamentally “incompatible” instruments. However, he did not let this deter him from writing for the pair. Instead of seeking to make the duo work together, he endeavored to highlight their differences, resulting in striking sonorities not often heard in a work for violin and piano.
Ravel worked on and completed several other compositions between 1923 and 1927, while writing the Sonata for Violin and Piano in G Major, which perhaps goes some way to explaining the strong differences in style between movements. The opening Allegretto maintains hallmarks of his early compositional style (some might call it Impressionistic, though Ravel himself was less than fond of the label). The movement underlines the discord between the instruments with decisively separate part-writing and angular melodic lines that seem almost to scrape against one another. Delicately lyrical contrasting passages bring the instrumental colors closer together before they diverge once more, ending with a sparely textured ascent.
The second movement Blues speaks to Ravel’s fascination with American jazz; many jazz elements made their way into Ravel’s music, particularly during his later career. The violin and piano are once more completely at odds as the movement begins with the instruments playing in two different keys. Syncopation, bent notes, and flatted sevenths accent the similar hard-edged quality of the first movement, though this time with an undoubtedly bluesy flavor.
As the title of the Perpetuum mobile. Allegro finale suggests, the violin takes center stage in the third movement with an unceasing display of brilliant virtuosity while the piano is relegated to an accompanimental – though by no means undemanding – capacity. The two voices continue to dance in a relentless whirlwind of notes before a striking final passage brings the work to a breathtaking conclusion.
— Laney Boyd