MOZART Sonata for Violin and Piano in F Major, K. 377
BLOCH Violin Sonata No. 2 "Poème Mystique"
BEETHOVEN Violin Sonata in E-flat Major, Op. 12, No. 3
FAURÉ Violin Sonata in A Major, Op. 13

Program notes by Eric Bromberger

Sonata for Violin and Piano in F Major, K.377

Born January 27, 1756, Salzburg
Died December 5, 1791, Vienna

In June 1781 Mozart broke away from the two authority figures who had dominated his life to that point, Archbishop Colloredo and his father Leopold, and moved to Vienna. Having declared his independence, Mozart was under pressure to justify so bold a step, and he set out immediately to make a career as a free-lance musician in his adopted city. He gave concerts and took students, but he also recognized that there was a growing number of amateur musicians in Vienna who would gladly purchase and perform attractive new music. His first publication in Vienna was in fact composed directly for this market: during the summer of 1781 Mozart composed four new sonatas for violin and piano and published them that November (along with two sonatas composed earlier) as his Opus 2.

The title page of that set read “Six Sonatas for the Harpsichord, or Pianoforte with the accompaniment of a Violin,” a description that has caused confusion because it seems to imply that the violin is superfluous and might be omitted with no loss of musical value. It is true that Mozart was working within the old form of the accompanied sonata, and it is true that the piano part often dominates textures in these sonatas. Still, the violin part is so important–and the musical argument so dependent on it–that they must be regarded as true duo-sonatas. An early reviewer in Hamburg went directly to this issue in his notice: “ . . . the violin accompaniment is so ingeniously combined with the clavier part that both instruments are constantly kept in equal prominence; so that these sonatas call for as skilled a violinist as a clavier player.”

The Sonata in F Major is not simply one of the finest of this set of six–this is one Mozart’s finest sonatas. Its opening moments dispel the notion of the primacy of the piano in this music: that instrument may make the strong opening statement of the Allegro, but instantly the melodic line passes to the violin, and the two instruments engage in a sequence of exchanges. There is an unusual sweep and energy to this movement, which is quite compact: Mozart elides the development into the recapitulation so that suddenly we are in the home stretch even before we recognize that fact.

The mood changes completely with the central movement. It is in theme-and-variation form, and the dark and dignified theme–in D minor–is taken through a series of six variations. This is the longest movement in the sonata, and it is a stunner, for the variations seem to grow in expressive power as they proceed. Each variation is in two parts, and the second is always longer and more ornate than the first. Across the first four variations, the theme seems to intensify on each appearance, and the music is marked both by strength and by chromatic expressiveness. Matters relax a little at the fifth variation, which moves into D major and sounds positively benign after what has gone before, and then Mozart concludes in a wholly original way: he goes back to D minor and casts the final variation as a siciliano, an old rocking dance whose name suggests the place of its origin. Many have noted the similarity between this variation and the final movement, also in variation form, of Mozart’s String Quartet in D Minor, K.421, composed two years later–apparently this theme continued to haunt Mozart even after the sonata was published. Here it rises to an unexpected power, and then Mozart extends it into a long coda that brings the movement to its quiet close.

How does one conclude after so powerful a movement? Again, Mozart makes an unusual (and convincing) decision. He marks the last movement Tempo di Menuetto, but this music does not have the character of a minuet. Instead, it is a sort of slow rondo, built around a dignified main idea first stated by the piano. This simple melody will return throughout the movement, but Mozart separates these appearances with a series of sharply contrasted episodes–some melodic, some dramatic. The movement is rounded off with a long coda full of harmonic surprises, and finally this music fades very gently into silence.

It is a most impressive ending to a most impressive sonata.

Violin Sonata No. 2 “Poème mystique”

Born July 24, 1880, Geneva, Switzerland
Died July 15, 1959, Portland, Oregon

Ernest Bloch immigrated to the United States in 1916 at a moment of disruption, ferment, and creativity. This was the middle of World War I, and Bloch left behind a continent–and a way of life–that were being torn apart. But this was also a good period for Bloch the composer, who was composing his great cycle of works on Jewish themes, including Schelomo, in these years. Bloch’s arrival in the United States brought many changes. In 1920 he became director of the Cleveland Institute of Music, and as a composer he felt the lure of neo-classicism, which was attracting so many composers in the years after the war. It was during Bloch’s five-year tenure in Cleveland that he composed his two violin sonatas, and those two sonatas reflect the extremes of his state of mind during that turbulent era.

Bloch himself described his First Violin Sonata, composed in 1920, as “a tormented work . . . written soon after the terrible war and the terrible peace”–it is music of stark drama, sometimes even of violence. But Bloch’s Second Violin Sonata, which he completed in November 1924 during an extended stay in Santa Fe, proceeds from quite a different impulse. It might almost be understood as a counterweight to the First: where the earlier sonata had looked back toward war and disruption, the Second looks ahead in the effort to transcend those forces. If the Second Sonata is not precisely a utopian work, it is nevertheless an expression of hope and optimism in the face of darkness. Much of Bloch’s optimism in those years rested on his belief in the brotherhood of mankind and in the universality of faith, and he makes that statement musically by basing the sonata in part on both Jewish and Christian themes.

Bloch completely re-thinks the notion of sonata form in this work. Where his First Sonata had been in the traditional three-movement classical structure, the Second Sonata is in one continuous span of about twenty minutes, divided into eight brief sections at different tempos. While this is not music that “tells” a story, it is nevertheless music with a subliminal message, and Bloch sends that message in several different ways. The very beginning–marked Andante moderato–opens with the violin alone, playing what Bloch himself described as “as violin recitative of Jewish character.” This soaring, rhapsodic gesture will become the fundamental theme-shape of the sonata, returning in a variety of forms. This material undergoes a spirited development, and then come some surprises. The fifth section is based on the old Gregorian chant “Credo in unum Deum,” played at first in octaves, and the sixth makes use of the musical phrase “Gloria in excelsis deo”–this intertwining of music from different religions underlines the extra-musical message of the sonata. These ideas develop through the dramatic seventh section, which falls into several different tempos, and Bloch concludes with a section he marks Molto quieto. That may be a misnomer. This section only begins quietly: soon it builds to a violent climax, and the sonata concludes ecstatically on one final recall of the soaring opening solo.

It should be noted that the “Poème mystique” is music of extraordinary difficulty for its performers. Bloch wrote it for two of his colleagues at the Cleveland Institute, violinist André de Ribaupierre and pianist Beryl Rubinstein, and they must have been superb artists to earn the dedication of so demanding a piece of music. This sonata was also a great favorite of Jascha Heifetz, who made a memorable recording in 1955.

Violin Sonata in E-flat Major, Opus 12, No. 3

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

When Beethoven published his first three violin sonatas as his Opus 12 in 1798, he had already written ten other sonatas: eight for piano and two for cello. The title page of Opus 12 bears a specific description of the sonatas by the composer–“For harpsichord or piano, with violin”–as if the violin were an afterthought, an optional participant in what are essentially keyboard sonatas. Beethoven’s description needs to be taken with a grain of salt. The sonatas clearly require a piano rather than a harpsichord, for no harpsichord could meet Beethoven’s quite specific dynamic requirements in these works. And the apparent relegation of the violin to a subordinate role is misleading as well, for these are true duo sonatas, sonatas in which both instruments share the musical and harmonic interest.

That said, however, it must be admitted that the Allegro con spirito first movement of the Sonata in E-flat Major is one of those places where the piano gets the lion’s share of the music. From the very beginning, the piano has a near-virtuoso role, introducing the main idea and hurtling up and down the keyboard, with the violin often providing no more than unobtrusive chordal accompaniment. The violin introduces the gentle second theme of this sonata-form movement and has a lovely passage at the recapitulation, but most of the show in this first movement belongs to the piano.

The quiet second movement, Adagio con molt’ espressione, has justly been praised as one of the finest slow movements from Beethoven’s early period. Here the long, singing main theme is shared in turn by both voices, and particularly effective is the middle section where the violin sings gracefully above murmuring piano accompaniment. The final movement–Allegro molto–is a rondo. The piano announces the theme, the violin repeats it, and the two instruments sail through this movement, gracefully taking turns as each has the theme, then accompanies the other.

Violin Sonata in A Major, Opus 13

Born May 13, 1845, Pamiers, France
Died November 4, 1924, Paris

One of Fauré’s students, the composer Florent Schmitt, described his teacher as an “unintentional, unwitting revolutionary.” The term “revolutionary” hardly seems to apply to a composer best-known for his gentle Requiem, songs, and chamber works. But while Fauré was no heaven-storming radical bent on undoing the past, his seemingly-quiet music reveals enough rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic surprises to justify Schmitt’s claim. The Violin Sonata in A Major, written in the summer of 1876 while Fauré was vacationing in Normandy, is dedicated to his friend, the violinist Paul Viardot. Following its first performance, the sonata was praised by Fauré’s teacher Saint-Saëns for its “formal novelty, quest, refinement of modulation, curious sonorities, use of the most unexpected rhythms . . . charm [and] . . . the most unexpected touches of boldness.” This is strong praise, but close examination of the sonata shows that Saint-Saëns was right.

One of the most interesting features of the opening Allegro molto occurs in the accompaniment, which is awash in a constant flow of eighth-notes. The first theme appears immediately in the piano, and already that instrument is weaving the filigree of accompanying eighth-notes that will shimmer throughout this movement: one of the challenges for performers is to provide tonal variety within this continual rustle of sound. The movement is in sonata form, and the descending second theme, introduced by the violin, is accompanied by a murmur of triplets from the piano. The movement concludes on a fiery restatement of the opening theme.

Distinguishing the Andante is its rhythmic pulse: a 9/8 meter throbs throughout the movement, though Fauré varies its effect by syncopating the accents within the measure. The third movement, a scherzo marked Allegro vivo, goes like a rocket. Fauré chooses not the expected triple meter of the traditional scherzo but a time signature of 2/8, an extremely short rhythmic unit, particularly when his metronome marking asks for 152 quarter-notes per minute. He further complicates the rhythm by writing in quite short phrases, so that the effect is of short phrases rapidly spit out, then syncopated by sharp off-beats. A lovely, graceful trio gives way to the opening material, and the movement suddenly vanishes in a shower of pizzicato notes. The tempo marking for the finale–Allegro quasi presto–seems to suggest a movement similar to the third, but despite its rapid tempo the last movement flows easily and majestically. Or at least it seems to, for here Fauré complicates matters harmonically. The piano opens in the home key–A major–but the violin seems always to prefer that key’s relative minor, F-sharp minor, and the resulting harmonic uncertainty continues throughout the movement until the sonata ends in unequivocal A major.

To emphasize this sonata’s originality may have the unhappy effect of making the music sound cerebral, interesting only for its technical novelty. That is hardly the case. Fauré’s Sonata in A Major is one of the loveliest violin sonatas of the late nineteenth century, full of melodic, graceful, and haunting music.