TARTINI Sonata in G Minor for Violin and Continuo
BEETHOVEN Violin Sonata in G Major, Opus 96
STRAVINSKY Divertimento from The Fairy's Kiss
Works to be announced from the stage

Program notes by Eric Bromberger

Sonata in G Minor for Violin and Continuo “Devil’s Trill”

Born April 8, 1692, Pirano, Istria
Died February 26, 1770, Padua

The life of Giuseppe Tartini reads like something out of a novel rather than a music history text.  As a boy, he learned to play the violin and to fence and was so good at both that he supported himself at law school by giving violin and fencing lessons–he even thought briefly of making a career as a fencing-master.  But fate intervened, as it so often does: at age 20, Tartini eloped with one of his violin students, only to discover that his youthful bride was under the protection of her uncle, the archbishop of Padua, who came after Tartini with a vengeance.  The young violin-and-fencing teacher had to flee Padua for Assisi, where he hid in a monastery.  Only after the archbishop had calmed down (which took two years) could Tartini return to Padua.  He had used his time in the cloister to study composition, and he now devoted himself completely to music, becoming music director of Saint Anthony’s in Padua and eventually founding a violin school; this became so famous that it attracted students from all over Europe, earning it the nickname “School of the Nations.”  A prolific composer (about 350 works survive), Tartini devoted himself to mathematical speculation and studies in musical theory during his later years.

His most famous work is the Violin Sonata in G Minor, which Tartini said was inspired when the devil appeared to him one night in a dream and played it through for him; the next day Tartini wrote down what he could remember of the sonata he had heard in his dream.  The music acquired the nickname “Devil’s Trill” from the fiendishly-difficult trilled passages in its last movement–many is the violinist who, faced with having to play these passages, has been quite ready to agree that this music did in fact come straight from the devil.  The sonata’s difficulties lie not just in the last movement’s famous trills, for the violinist must also be able to execute graceful string crossings, double-stops, quick grace notes, and the sudden alternation of a cantabile line with fiery attacks.  Furthermore, the violin plays during every second of this music.

The “Devil’s Trill” is in three movements.  The opening Larghetto affetuoso, somber and wistful, gives way to an Allegro that alternates dramatic gestures with fluid and flowing passages demanding the most poised bow arm possible.  The famous last movement is actually two movements in one, for Tartini alternates the opening Grave and the Allegro assai, with its infamous trills.  What makes these trills so difficult is that the violinist must simultaneously play a bowed melody on another string.  Near the close Tartini has the violinist break away for a long solo cadenza before a grand close on the Grave melody.

The “Devil’s Trill” is one of the great violin sonatas, but Tartini was not fully satisfied with it.  Much later, he wrote to a friend: “The piece I then composed, ‘The Devil’s Sonata,’ although the best I ever wrote, how far was it below the one I heard in my dream!”

Violin Sonata in G Major, Opus 96

Born December 16, 1770, Bonn
Died March 26, 1827, Vienna

Beethoven wrote the Sonata in G Major at the end of 1812, shortly after completing his  Seventh and Eighth Symphonies.  French violinist Pierre Rode–solo violinist to Napoleon and later to the czar in St. Petersburg–was making a visit to Vienna, and Beethoven wrote the sonata for that occasion, claiming that he had tried to cast the last movement in the somewhat less dramatic style that Rode preferred.  Rode did give the first performance in Vienna on December 29, 1812, and on that occasion the pianist was Beethoven’s pupil and patron, the Archduke Rudolph–Beethoven’s hearing had deteriorated so badly by this time that he could no longer take part in ensemble performances.  Beethoven’s hearing may have deteriorated, but not so far as to prevent his being disappointed in Rode’s playing.  He kept the sonata in manuscript for several years, revised it in 1814-15, and finally published it in 1816.

Of Beethoven’s ten violin sonatas, nine were written in the comparatively short span of six years: 1797 to 1803.  Of course there was tremendous growth in those six years–think of the difference between the Mozartean early sonatas and the Kreutzer Sonata–but it is also true that Beethoven’s violin sonatas do not span his career in the way that his piano sonatas, string quartets, and symphonies do.  Only the Sonata in G Major comes from outside that six-year span, and there are no violin sonatas from the final fifteen years of the composer’s life.  But this final sonata–so different from the first nine–gives us some sense of what a late violin sonata might have been like, for many of the characteristics of Beethoven’s late style are already present here: a heartfelt slow movement derived from the simplest materials, a sharply-focused and almost brusque scherzo, and a theme-and-variation finale of unusual structure and complexity.  Even the restrained first movement, music of understatement and “inwardness,” looks ahead to the works Beethoven would write during the extraordinary final six years of his life.

The Allegro moderato opens as simply as possible.  The violin’s quiet four-note figure is immediately answered by the piano, and that easy dialogue between the instruments characterizes this restrained, almost rhapsodic movement.  The dancing second theme is presented first by piano with violin accompaniment, and then the instruments trade roles.  The brief development section–more a discussion of the material than a dramatic evolution of it–leads to a full recapitulation of the opening.  Throughout, Beethoven repeatedly reminds the performers: dolce, sempre piano (“sweet, always quiet”).

The Adagio espressivo is built on a theme of moving simplicity, much like the slow movements of the late quartets.  The piano lays out this long main idea, and the violin soon joins it.   This movement breathes an air of serenity that is all the more remarkable when one sees the printed page: it is almost black with Beethoven’s elaborate ornamentation, much of it in 64th- notes that he has carefully written out.  The Scherzo follows without pause.  Propulsive and quite brief, it rides along off-the beat accents in its outer sections and a flowing trio in E-flat major.  There are no exposition repeats in this concise movement, which concludes with a very short G-major coda.

The concluding Poco Allegretto is one of the most extraordinary movements in all ten of Beethoven’s violin sonatas.  It opens with a tune that sings simply and agreeably.  But instead of the expected rondo-finale, Beethoven writes a series of variations on this opening tune.  Just as the ear has adapted to variation form–and just as the music has grown increasingly animated–Beethoven throws one of his wildest curves: the tempo becomes Adagio espressivo, and the mood returns to that of the slow movement, heartfelt and intense.  Beethoven writes out ornamentation here so elaborate that the instruments almost seem to have individual cadenzas.  The very end of the movement is as unusual as the rest–the opening tempo returns, but now this breaks down into a series of individual sequences at different speeds and in quite different moods.  Finally, at the point when we have lost any sense of motion or direction, Beethoven whips matters to a sudden close, the piano flashing upward to strike the final chord.

Divertimento from The Fairy’s Kiss

Born June 17, 1882, Oranienbaum, Russia
Died April 6, 1971, New York City

As a small boy, Stravinsky was taken to see a performance of Sleeping Beauty and fell in love with the music of Tchaikovsky on the spot.  In one of his autobiographies, Stravinsky recalls an even more intense memory: at a performance of Glinka’s A Life for the Tsar in 1893, the eleven-year-old Stravinsky came out of his family’s box to see a tall figure stride past.  His mother leaned down and whispered: “Igor, look, there is Tchaikovsky.”  Stravinsky notes: “I looked and saw a man with white hair, large shoulders, a corpulent back, and this image has remained in the retina of my memory all my life.”

A love for Tchaikovsky’s music remained with Stravinsky all his life as well, and when in 1927 the dancer Ida Rubinstein suggested that he write a ballet for her new company, Stravinsky quickly accepted her proposal that he compose a score based on themes by Tchaikovsky, much as he had written Pulcinella on themes by Pergolesi in 1920.  Stravinsky based the ballet on the Hans Christian Andersen tale The Ice Maiden, in which a fairy finds a boy lost in a snowstorm and imprints a magic kiss upon him.  This kiss gives her control of the boy, and twenty years later–on his wedding day–she re-appears, kisses him again, and takes eternal possession of the young man.

Stravinsky drew his themes for this ballet from five of Tchaikovsky’s songs and about a dozen of his piano pieces, so that the resulting ballet is an amalgam of both composers’ styles, combining Tchaikovsky’s melodic gift with Stravinsky’s ingenious rhythmic sense.  First performed in Paris on November 27, 1928, The Fairy’s Kiss (as Stravinsky called the ballet) has never enjoyed the success of his other ballets, but Stravinsky retained his fondness for the music.  Several years later, in the early 1930s, when Stravinsky went on concert tours with the violinist Samuel Dushkin, he needed music for the two of them to play together.  He composed the Duo Concertant for Dushkin and arranged several of his orchestral scores for violin and piano to fill out these programs.  One of these scores was The Fairy’s Kiss, though when Stravinsky made the violin-piano arrangement, he changed the title to the more abstract Divertimento.

The ballet was in four scenes, and Stravinsky kept the order of the original pieces intact but made cuts that reduce the Divertimento to less than half of the forty-five-minute ballet.  The Divertimento is in four movements, with the first two performed without pause: the serene opening Sinfonia is the ballet’s first scene, the stately Danses suisses the second.  The brief Scherzo is taken from the third scene; some of this music bears a strong resemblance to Stravinsky’s Apollo, completed the same year as The Fairy’s Kiss.  The final movement, characterized by great rhythmic variety, is based on three of the four sections of the original ballet’s Pas de Deux: Adagio, Variation, and Coda.  As ballet or as instrumental suite, this music remains a unique tribute from one artist to another.

Program notes by Eric Bromberger