Sonata in E major BWV 1016 Bach (1685 – 1750)
Adagio ma non tanto
From 1717 to 1723, Bach was Kapellmeister to Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen, a keen musician who played both the harpsichord and the violin. From this happy period in his career date both the sublime works for unaccompanied violin, and the less well-known but equally masterly set of six sonatas for violin and harpsichord. Bach himself described these as “trios for harpsichord with violin”, the violin and the right hand of the harpsichord providing the two melodic lines, the left hand the accompanying bass. Thus, in contrast to what had gone before, the keyboard part was written out in full, rather than as a figured bass, and is of prime importance. The third sonata in E major follows the form of the Italian sonata da chiesa, or church sonata, where slow and quick movements alternate. In the opening adagio, the long singing line of the violin, elaborately decorated, dominates, but in the remaining movements the material is shared much more equally between the two melodic lines, as is perhaps most easily heard in the second adagio. The first allegro has a jolly catchy little theme (that you will probably be singing as you leave!) and the second bowls along in a moto perpetuo of semiquavers to its optimistic conclusion.
Sonata in C minor op. 30 no. 2 Beethoven (1770 – 1827)
Allegro con brio
The three sonatas op. 30 date from 1802, being composed between the second and third symphonies. This was a difficult period for Beethoven, with a failed romance, ill health and increasing deafness. The dark nature of the C minor sonata, however, is shot through with what seems to be a determination not to submit to fate, and some have seen in it, and in its dedication to Tsar Alexander the First, a vision of heroic victories, with bugle calls and the beating of drums. Certainly it takes the violin sonata into new realms.
The taut opening theme is stated first on the piano and then taken up by the violin, and leads to a march-like second subject. The urgency of the music is such that Beethoven deliberate dispenses with the usual repeat of the exposition. A further innovation is the introduction of a sighing new theme at the start of the development (Cobbett suggests this is the groans of the wounded). The adagio strikes a different mood, of “sweet sadness”, with the piano part illustrating the singing qualities for which Beethoven’s own playing was admired. The simple two-part theme is treated with a variety of accompanying figures, with in the closing sections quiet triplet drum-rolls and loud militaristic flourishes. The lively Haydnesque scherzo has a trio in which the instruments play in canon. The opening theme of the finale, again something of a drum-roll deep on the piano, comes to dominate the movement, as it races to its dramatic conclusion in a presto coda.
Scherzo in C minor Brahms (1833 – 1897)
Brahms was notorious for destroying his early forays into particular musical genres – for example, several early attempts at string quartets were suppressed before the first published work appeared in 1863. The same fate befell several piano and violin sonatas, but by a lucky chance this one example of his youthful work survives. In 1853, the 20-year-old Brahms was in Düsseldorf, with his patrons Robert and Clara Schumann. The violin virtuoso Joseph Joachim (to whom Brahms would in 1878 dedicate the violin concerto) was due to visit, and at Schumann’s suggestion a “Committee Sonata” was composed, with one of his pupils Dietrich providing the first movement, Schumann himself the second and fourth, and Brahms the third. Joachim gladly played the sonata, with Clara at the piano, and presumably retained the manuscript, as the Scherzo (sometimes known as Sonatensatz) was published by him in 1906 after Brahms’ death.
The movement, which lasts only a brief five minutes, consists of the scherzo, in C minor and 6/8 time, pulsing with virile energy and passion, contrasted with a trio section in G major and 2/4 time, which recalls somewhat Schumann’s own style, before the scherzo is repeated with a grandiose coda in C major.
Sonata no. 2 in A op. 100 Brahms (1833 – 1897)
Andante tranquillo – vivace
Allegretto grazioso (quasi andante)
The first violin sonata that Brahms was happy to publish, op. 78, did not appear until he was 46. There was then a gap of seven years before this second sonata, which was written in 1886 during an idyllic summer holiday on LakeThunin Switzerland. The generally tender nature of the work may have been inspired by the presence of the soprano Hermine Spies – certainly it quotes from some of the songs he wrote there for her, and is one of his most melodious works. The opening notes of the first movement, reminiscent of Wagner’s Prize Song theme, explain the sonata’s nickname the Meistersinger. The second subject group includes the theme of Brahm’s new song Wie Melodien, which compares the wafting scent of flowers to melody. The second movement serves as both slow movement andscherzo, the gentle lyricism of the andante exactly balancing the gay dance rhythms of thevivace. The opening theme of the finale – a real air on the G string – is contrasted with episodes of mystery, misty piano arpeggios and questioning phrases on the violin. Elizabeth von Herzenberg, Brahm’s close friend, summarised the work thus: “the whole sonata is one caress”.