PROGRAM NOTES: Caroline Goulding, violin
by Eric Bromberger
Sonata for Piano and Violin in B-flat Major, K.454
WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART
Born January 27, 1756, Salzburg
Died December 5, 1791, Vienna
Approximate Duration: 19 minutes
Mozart wrote this sonata in Vienna in April 1784 for a series of concerts given by the violinist Regina Strinasacchi, a twenty-year-old Italian woman. Mozart played the piano at the first performance, which was attended by the emperor, and that occasion produced one of those unbelievable–but apparently quite true–Mozart anecdotes. Rushed for time, Mozart wrote out just the violin part and at the concert set only a blank sheet of paper before him; he then proceeded to play the entire piano part from memory. The manuscript shows the violin part written out in ink. Beneath it, the piano part–written in a different color ink–has been squeezed in later to fit the violin part. Even given Mozart’s extraordinary memory, playing a première from out of thin air is an act of stunning bravado.
It is all the more impressive when one sees how intricate and difficult this score is. Mozart’s early sonatas had been largely piano sonatas with violin accompaniment, and the violin could almost be eliminated with no loss of musical content. But Mozart gradually began to give more of the musical interest to the violin, and one of the glories of the Sonata in B-flat Major is the equal partnership of the two instruments, particularly in their easy exchange of phrases.
The first movement opens with an elegant Largo introduction, and the Allegro erupts after the slow introduction reaches a moment of repose; the development grows easily out of the cadence that ends the exposition. By contrast, the Andante is a long flow of melody. Mozart did not mark this movement cantabile, but he might well have, for it sounds like a long aria for the two instruments, which again share duties evenly. An ornate development leads to the quiet close. The concluding Allegretto opens with one of those seemingly never-ending themes, but almost instantly a melodic second idea occurs, and only when it has passed does one realize that Mozart has derived that idea from the opening. This movement is full of vigor and sweep, much of it propelled by powerful triplet rhythms. Together, the two instruments stamp out the powerful concluding cadence.
One wonders what was going through Mozart’s mind as he stood–before his blank sheet of paper–to acknowledge the applause at that first performance.
Sonata in G Major for Violin and Piano
Born March 7, 1875, Ciboure, France
Died December 28, 1937, Paris
Approximate Duration: 18 minutes
Ravel began making sketches for his Violin Sonata in 1923, the year after he completed his orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. He was composing a number of works for violin during these years, including Tzigane, but the Violin Sonata proved extremely difficult for him, and he did not complete it until 1927. The first performance, by violinist George Enesco and the composer, took place on May 30, 1927, in Paris while that city was still in a dither over the landing of Charles Lindbergh the week before.
In the Violin Sonata, Ravel wrestled with a problem that has plagued all who compose violin sonatas–the clash between the resonant, sustained sound of the violin and the percussive sound of the piano–and he chose to accentuate these differences: “It was this independence I was aiming at when I wrote a Sonata for violin and piano, two incompatible instruments whose incompatibility is emphasized here, without any attempt being made to reconcile their contrasted characters.” The most distinctive feature of the sonata, however, is Ravel’s use of jazz elements in the slow movement.
The opening Allegretto is marked by emotional restraint. The piano alone announces the cool first theme, which is quickly picked up by the violin. A sharply rhythmic figure, much like a drum tattoo, contrasts with the rocking, flowing character of the rest of this movement, which closes on a quietly soaring restatement of the main theme.
Ravel called the second movement Blues, but he insisted that this is jazz as seen by a Frenchman. In a lecture during his American tour of 1928, he said of this movement: “while I adopted this popular form of your music, I venture to say that nevertheless it is French music, Ravel’s music, that I have written.” He sets out to make violin and piano sound like a saxophone and guitar, specifying that the steady accompanying chords must be played strictly in time so that the melodic line can sound “bluesy” in contrast. The “twang” of this movement is accentuated by Ravel’s setting the violin in G major and the piano in A-flat major at the opening.
Thematic fragments at the very beginning of the finale slowly accelerate to become a virtuoso perpetual motion. Ravel brings back themes from the first two movements before the music rushes to its brilliant close, which features complex string-crossings for the violinist.
Myths, Opus 30
Born October 6, 1882, Tymoszówka, Ukraine
Died March 29, 1937, Lausanne, Switzerland
Approximate Duration: 20 minutes
World War I forced Szymanowski to remain in his native city of Tymoszówka in Poland, and there he composed prodigiously: the Symphony No. 3, Violin Concerto No. 1, and numerous songs, cantatas, and piano pieces all date from the first years of the war. Now in his early thirties, Szymanowski had only recently thrown off the influence of Wagner and Strauss to forge his own style, a style that grew in large measure from his exploration of Sicily and North Africa and from his new awareness of ancient cultures. Musically, this meant a style characterized by great attention to instrumental color, busy textures, and an expressionism that can verge on intoxicated ecstasy.
Szymanowski composed several works for violin and piano during this period, among them his three Myths, Opus 30 in 1915. Szymanowski had fallen in love with classical antiquity, and each of the three movements–The Fountain of Arethusa, Narcissus, and Dryads and Pan–is based on a different Greek myth. Arethusa was a nymph loved by both Artemis and the river god Alpheus. Bathing in a river, she was forced to flee underwater to the island Ortygia to escape Alpheus; on that island, Artemis transformed her into a fountain, but Alpheus followed, was himself transformed into a river, and so was united with Arethusa at last. Szymanowski makes no attempt to cast this myth in a “classical” style but instead sets The Fountain of Arethusa in a shimmering, postimpressionistic musical language. This is a display-piece for both instruments, from the delicate piano introduction (clearly the sound of the fountain) through the writing for violin, which has a sort of fantastic tonal opulence, soaring high in its range, slipping into passages played entirely in harmonics, and leaping between an extroverted brilliance and a reflective lyricism. The Fountain of Arethusa has become one of Szymanowski’s most popular works.
Narcissus was loved by Echo, but he was so consumed with himself that he rejected her; she in turn caused him to fall in love with his own reflection in a pool, where he withered away and was transformed into a flower. Szymanowski casts his Narcissus in a rondo-like form, with the violin’s principal melody returning in different keys and guises.
Dryads were tree-nymphs (the most famous of them was Eurydice, wife of Orpheus), and Pan the god of fields, forests, and flocks. Pan pursued the nymph Syrinx, who fled to the river Ladon and prayed to be turned into a reed; her prayer was granted, and Pan cut the reed and from it made his pipes. Szymanowski’s setting of this tale is notable for its brilliant writing for violin: Dryads and Pan offers the violinist a cadenza (rare in chamber music) and features quartertones and harmonics used to imitate the sound of Pan’s flute. Szymanowski wrote Myths for the Polish violin virtuoso Paul Kochanski and dedicated it to Kochanksi’s wife Sofia.
Impressions d’enfance, Opus 28
Born August 19, 1881, Liveni Vîrnav, Romania
Died May 3/4, 1955, Paris
Approximate Duration: 23 minutes
George Enescu composed his Impressions d’enfance (“Memories of Childhood”) in Paris in 1940. This was early in World War II, the Germans had occupied Paris, and the 59-year-old composer may have been all too happy to flee the grim present reality and retreat to a more innocent time in his life. The Impressions d’enfance, which spans about twenty minutes, is in ten interconnected movements, each of them a specific memory from Enescu’s childhood. Given the circumstances of its creation, one might expect the Impressions d’enfance to be a nostalgic score, full of innocence and nursery tunes. Instead, this is music of extraordinary complexity, scaldingly difficult for both violinist and pianist and playable by only the most accomplished virtuosos. Yet somehow, in the midst of all its fierce technical challenges, the Impressions d’enfance manages to preserve some of the innocence and beauty of the composer’s memories of his childhood.
Impressions d’enfance is a scrupulously notated score. On the first page Enescu provides a list of detailed instructions for both performers, explaining exactly how he wants passages pedaled, dynamics observed, the weight of the bow distributed, and attacks made. The rhythmic complexity of this music is particularly noteworthy, and performers must take care to control the subtle ebb and flow of tempo throughout every movement. The subject of this music may be innocent–the technique is not.
Impressions d’enfance opens with a long passage (three minutes) for violin alone, titled Minstrel and full of Enescu’s childhood memories of the sound of gypsy violinists in his native Romania. The piano enters at the Old Beggar, and Enescu marks passages in this dark music malinconico and patetico. In Stream at the Bottom of the Garden, Enescu provides swirls, trills, and Chopin-like rhythmic sprays that give us some of the sound\ of that water. One of the most impressive movements in Impressions d’enfance is The Bird in the Cage and the Cuckoo on the Wall. Few composers ever have been able to create such convincing bird-songs as we hear from the two birds in this movement. The caged bird sings and chitters in the violin’s high register, while the sound of the cuckoo comes from hollow-sounding harmonics. One of the simplest movements, Lullaby sings gently; violin and piano play in unison throughout much of this cradle song. Cricket brings another amazing depiction of animal sounds. Enescu marks the violin part saltando (“jumping”) as the cricket sings its striking song. Moonlight through the Window brings not luminous calm, but complex glissandos, harmonics and grace-noted; Enescu instructs his players here to make their performance sognando (“dreaming”) and pensieroso (“thoughtful”). Wind in the Chimney belongs entirely to the violin, which creates these frightening sounds with ponticello (bowing right on top of the bridge to produce a grainy sound) and flautando bowing (bowing out over the fingerboard to produce a hollow, disembodied sound). These winds gradually build to a storm outside in the night, the piano returns, and the music drives to a great climax, then proceeds directly into the final movement, Sunrise. After all the spookiness and\ storminess of the preceding movements, Impressions d’enfance ends in a great blaze of D-major sunlight.
This is a very unusual piece of music, and it is almost unknown. Enescu, one of the great violinists of all time and a profound musical intelligence, reaches back across fifty years to recreate a series of memories from his childhood. This music, so difficult for its performers, somehow manages to transcend those difficulties and to charm its listeners.