PROGRAM NOTES: Leonidas Kavakos, violin & Yuja Wang, piano
by Eric Bromberger
Violin Sonatas from World War I
With the exception of the Schubert Fantasy, all the works on this program were composed during World War I or immediately afterward, and each reflects–in quite a different way–the violence and artistic ferment of that wrenching moment in human history. Leos Janáček, throughout his life a passionate Czech nationalist, hoped that the war would free his homeland from the yoke of Austro Hungarian rule. Specifically, Janáček hoped that the Russian army would liberate his homeland, and some have felt that, in the ecstatic climax of the finale of his Violin Sonata, Janáček looked forward to that hoped-for invasion by the Russians. Debussy, violently anti-German in both politics and art, was deeply depressed by the destruction wrought by the war (and on the day Debussy died in Paris, that city was being shelled by the Germans). He set out to make his Violin Sonata as consciously non- Germanic as he could, stressing that it was above all else a “French” sonata. Béla Bartók spent the war years in artistic isolation in Budapest. The war cut off musical life in Europe, and it was not until after the armistice that he was able to hear the latest developments in music, particularly Schoenberg’s new ideas about harmony. Those ideas profoundly influenced the two violin sonatas Bartók composed right after the war. Hearing these three violin sonatas on the same program reminds us how difficult those years were and how three supremely sensitive artists responded in such different ways.
Sonata for Violin and Piano
Born July 3, 1854, Hukvaldy, Czech Republic
Died August 12, 1928, Moravska Ostrava, Czech Republic
Approximate Duration: 17 minutes
Over the last several decades, Czech composer LeoŠ Janáček has escaped his reputation as an interesting minor composer and been recognized for what he was: one of the great composers of the first part of the twentieth century. Born only thirteen years after Dvořák, Janáček might seem to belong more properly to the nineteenth century than the twentieth, but his reputation rests largely on the extraordinary body of work he created after his sixtieth birthday. Over the final fourteen years of his life, Janáček wrote the operas Katya Kabanova, The Cunning Little Vixen, The Makropoulos Affair, and The House of the Dead; orchestral works like the Sinfonietta and Taras Bulba; the Glagolitic Mass; and an array of chamber works, including two string quartets and the Violin Sonata.
The Violin Sonata is unfamiliar to most audiences today, but here is an instance where familiarity breeds respect, for this is original and moving music. Janáček originally wrote the sonata in 1914 but could find no violinist interested in performing it; after complete revision, it was first performed in 1922, when the composer was 68. Listeners unfamiliar with Janáček’s music will need to adjust to the distinctive sound of this sonata: Janáček generates a shimmering, rippling sonority in the accompaniment, and over this the violin has jagged melodic lines, some sustained, but some very brief, and in fact these sometimes harsh interjections are one of the most characteristic aspects of this music. Janáček also shows here his fondness for unusual key signatures: the four movements are in D-flat minor, E major, E-flat minor, and G-sharp minor.
The opening movement, marked simply Con moto, begins with a jagged recitative for violin, which immediately plays the movement’s main subject over a jangling piano accompaniment reminiscent of the cimbalom of Eastern Europe. Despite Janáček’s professed dislike of German forms, this movement shows some relation to sonata form: there is a more flowing second subject and an exposition repeat, followed by a brief development full of sudden tempo changes and themes treated as fragments. A short recapitulation leads to the quiet close.
The Balada was originally written as a separate piece and published in 1915, but as Janáček revised the sonata he decided to use the Balada as its slow movement. This is long lined music, gorgeous in its sustained lyricism as the violin sails high above the rippling piano; it has a broad second subject. At the climax, Janáček marks both parts ad lib, giving the performers a wide freedom of tempo before the music falls away to its shimmering close.
The Allegretto sounds folk-inspired, particularly in its short, repeated phrases (Janáček interjects individual measures in the unusual meters of 1/8 and 1/4). The piano has the dancing main subject, accompanied by vigorous swirls from the violin; the trio section leads to an abbreviated return of the opening material and a cadence on harshly clipped chords.
The sonata concludes, surprisingly, with a slow movement, and this Adagio is in many ways the most impressive movement of the sonata. It shows some elements of the dumka form: the rapid alternation of bright and dark music. The piano opens with a quiet chordal melody marked dolce, but the violin breaks in roughly with interjections that Janáček marks feroce: “wild, fierce.” A flowing second theme in E major offers a glimpse of quiet beauty, but the movement drives to an unexpected climax on the violin’s Maestoso declarations over tremolandi piano. And then the sonata comes to an eerie conclusion: the declamatory climax falls away to an enigmatic close, and matters end ambiguously on the violin’s fierce interjections.
Janáček’s Violin Sonata is extraordinary music, original in conception and sonority and finally very moving, despite its refusal ever to do quite what we expect it to. For those unfamiliar with Janáček’s late music, this sonata offers a glimpse of the rich achievement of his remarkable final fourteen years.
Fantasy in C Major for Violin and Piano, D.934
Born January 31, 1797, Vienna
Died November 19, 1828, Vienna
Approximate Duration: 24 minutes
Schubert wrote the Fantasy for Violin and Piano in December 1827, only eleven months before his death at age 31. The music was first performed in public on January 20, 1828, by violinist Joseph Slavik and pianist Karl von Bocklet, one of Schubert’s close friends. That première was a failure. The audience is reported to have begun to drift out during the performance, reviewers professed mystification, and the Fantasy was not published until 1850, twenty-two years after Schubert’s death.
Hearing this lovely music today, it is hard to imagine how anyone could have had trouble with it, for the only thing unusual about the Fantasy is its structure. About twenty minutes long, it falls into four clear sections that are played without pause. Though it seems to have some of the shape of a violin sonata, the movements do not develop in the expected sonata form–that may have been what confused the first audience–and Schubert was quite correct to call this piece a “fantasy,” with that term’s implication of freedom from formal restraint.
Melodic and appealing as the Fantasy may be to hear, it is nevertheless extremely difficult to perform, and it demands players of the greatest skill. The first section, marked Andante molto, opens with shimmering ripples of sound from the piano, and the lovely violin line enters almost unnoticed. Soon, though, it rises to soar high above the accompaniment before brief cadenza-like passages for violin and then piano lead abruptly to the Allegretto. Here the violin has the dancelike opening idea, but the piano immediately picks this up, and quickly the instruments are imitating and answering each other. The violin writing in this section, full of wide skips and string-crossings, is particularly difficult. The third section, marked Andantino, is a set of variations. The piano alone plays the melody, which comes from Schubert’s song Sei mir gegrüsst (“Greetings to Thee”), written in 1821. Some of Schubert’s best-known compositions–the “Death and the Maiden” Quartet and the “Trout” Quintet–also build a movement out of variations on one of the composer’s own songs, and in the Fantasy Schubert offers four variations on Sei mir gegrüsst. These variations grow extremely complex– some have felt that they grow too complex–and once again the music makes great demands on its performers. At the conclusion of the variations, the shimmering music from the beginning returns briefly before the vigorous final section, marked Allegro vivace. Schubert brings the Fantasy to a close with a Presto coda, both instruments straining forward before the violin suddenly flashes upward to strike the concluding high C.
Sonata for Violin and Piano in G Minor
Born August 22, 1862, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France
Died March 25, 1918, Paris
Approximate Duration: 12 minutes
Debussy’s final years were wretched. He developed colon cancer in 1909 and underwent a painful operation, radiation therapy, and drug treatment. It was all to no avail, and the disease took its steady course. The onslaught of World War I in 1914 further depressed him, but it also sparked a wave of nationalistic fervor, and he set about writing a set of six sonatas for different combinations of instruments. It may seem strange that the iconoclastic Debussy would return in his final years to so structured a form as the sonata, but he specified that his model was the French sonata of the eighteenth century and not the classical German sonata. To make his point–and his nationalistic sympathies–even more clear, Debussy signed the scores of these works “Claude Debussy, musicien français.”
Debussy lived to complete only three of the projected six sonatas: a Cello Sonata (1915); a Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp (1916); and the Violin Sonata, completed in April 1917. It was to be his final work, and it gave him a great deal of difficulty. From the depths of his gloom, he wrote to a friend: “This sonata will be interesting from a documentary viewpoint and as an example of what may be produced by a sick man in time of war.” Debussy played the piano at the première on May 5, 1917, and performed it again in September at what proved to be his final public appearance. His deteriorating health confined him to his room thereafter, and he died the following March.
For all Debussy’s dark comments, the Violin Sonata is a brilliant work, alternating fantastic and exotic outbursts with more somber and reflective moments. In three concise movements, the sonata lasts only about thirteen minutes. Debussy deliberately obscures both meter and key over the first few measures of the Allegro vivo, and only gradually does the music settle into G minor. The haunting beginning of the movement feels subdued, almost ascetic, but the dancing middle section in E major is more animated. Debussy brings back the opening material and rounds off the movement with a con fuoco coda.
The second movement brings a sharp change of mood after the brutal close of the first. Debussy marks it fantasque et léger (“Fantastic [or fanciful] and light”), and the violin opens with a series of leaps, swirls, and trills before settling into the near-hypnotic main idea. The second subject, marked “sweet and expressive,” slides languorously on glissandos and arpeggios, and the movement comes to a quiet close. Over rippling chords, the finale offers a quick reminiscence of the very opening of the sonata, and then this theme disappears for good and the finale’s real theme leaps to life. It is a shower of triplet sixteenths that rockets upward and comes swirling back down: the composer described it as “a theme turning back on itself like a serpent biting its own tail.” There are some sultry interludes along the way, full of glissandos, broken chords, rubato, and trills, but finally the swirling energy of the main theme drives the music to its animated close.
Debussy may have been unhappy about this music while working on it, but once done he felt more comfortable with it, writing to a friend: “In keeping with the contradictory spirit of human nature, it is full of joyous tumult . . . Beware in the future of works which appear to inhabit the skies; often they are the product of a dark, morose mind.”
Sonata No. 1 for Violin and Piano, Sz.75
Born March 25, 1881, Nagyszentmiklós, Hungary
Died September 26, 1945, New York City
Approximate Duration: 37 minutes
The period of World War I was difficult for Bartók. Musical life throughout Europe had gone dormant, and–depressed by adverse criticism and a failure to find audiences–Bartók had almost stopped composing. But as he approached his fortieth birthday in 1921, his fortunes changed. He had a number of successful premières, Universal Edition agreed to publish his works, and he began to make recital tours as a pianist throughout Europe. He was warmly received by audiences and critics in London, Berlin, Paris, and many other cities.
He also began to hear music he had been unable to hear during the war, in particular the music of Schoenberg. The influence of Schoenberg can be felt in the music Bartók composed in the early 1920s, particularly in its intense chromaticism and expressionistic character. Bartók’s biographer Halsey Stevens has noted that the two violin sonatas, composed in 1921-2, are “farther from traditional standards of tonality than anything else Bartók wrote.” Bartók was aware of the influences, yet he later insisted that “it is an unmistakable characteristic of my works of that period that they are built upon a tonal base.”
The Violin Sonata No. 1 should be enjoyed as the music of Bartók and not valued for the appearance of influences from other composers. This is very dramatic music, and it is an unusually big sonata–at nearly 35 minutes, it is one of Bartók’s longest compositions. It also makes a splendid sound. Bartók writes entirely different music for the two instruments here, for they share no thematic material: the piano’s music is vertical (chords or arpeggiated chords), while the violin’s is linear–Bartók rarely has it play in doublestops. The score is scrupulously annotated. Bartók specifies exact metronome markings and changes them frequently, minutely gradates dynamics, and achieves a varied sonority: at times the piano is made to sound like the old Hungarian cimbalom or the percussive gamelan. Even individual phrases are shaped exactly. Bartók gives one passage the unique marking risvegliandosi: “waking up.” Perhaps the best way to approach this sonata is to enjoy its sweep, its extraordinary sound, and the drive that propels the music across two huge movements to one of Bartók’s most exciting finales.
The opening movement, aptly titled Allegro appassionato, takes the general shape of sonata form: an exposition that lays out a wealth of themes and brief motifs, an extended development (introduced by quietly-tolling arpeggiated piano chords), and a lengthy recapitulation that brings back the themes not literally but radically transformed. Throughout the movement (and the entire sonata) the writing for both instruments is of a concerto-like virtuosity. The opening of the movement is of unusual harmonic interest. Bartók felt that this sonata was in C-sharp minor, but while the piano seems to begin in that key, the violin enters in C major, and that bitonal clash presages the harmonic ambiguity of the entire sonata. This music is so chromatic that a firm sense of these keys quickly vanishes, and even the conclusion of the sonata states C-sharp minor only ambiguously. The Adagio, in ternary form, opens with a lengthy passage for unaccompanied violin; the quiet opening section gives way to a slower and more ornate middle before the movement concludes with a return of the quiet opening material, once again radically transformed. The finale is a wildly-dancing rondo based on its gypsy-flavored opening idea, a sort of moto perpetuo for violin. Tempo changes are frequent here as Bartók varies the mood with sharply-contrasted episodes before the sonata rushes to its bravura close.
Composed between October and December 1921, the sonata had its première in London on March 24, 1922, by the composer and violinist Jelly d’Aranyi, and they then played it throughout Europe. One might guess that early reviews would have been uncomprehending, but in fact they were quite positive. Bartók’s First Violin Sonata is a massive work– tough, demanding, and uncompromising. It is also some of the most bracing, exhilarating, and exciting music he ever wrote.