January 24, 2007 at 7:44 PMI'd like to archive some of my program notes here. If any would like to use them, please contact me to let me know you've done so. Also, be sure to use proper citations when quoting.
These notes range in style from informal to quite formal. I hope they might be helpful or enjoyable!
Listed in order of appearance below:
Sarasate Carmen Fantasy
Gershwin Three Preludes
Vivaldi Concerto RV 222
Bach Sonata No. 3 in C
Prokofiev Sonata No. 1 in f
Schumann Sonata No. 1 in a
Beethoven Sonata in c, No. 7
Sarasate Carmen Fantasy, Op. 25
The "Carmen Fantasy" may be one of the most famous and best-loved works for the violin. Written in 1883 by the acclaimed Spanish virtuoso Pablo de Sarasate, the piece is based on themes from Bizet's opera "Carmen." A magnificent violinist, Sarasate was known for his dazzling technique and singing tone, both of which are called for in the Carmen Fantasy. Not unlike Fritz Kreisler, Sarasate was gifted as a composer, and he knew how to best showcase his own talents. This piece is the pinnacle of the unique style that Sarasate established with his playing.
Through the twentieth century, it became the benchmark by which violin virtuosi were measured; the younger age at which a violinist could perform the piece masterfully, the more remarkable and miraculous was his talent. Indeed, Sarah Chang's debut CD as a twelve-year-old child boasted a flawless Carmen as its final tracks. Itzahk Perlman's recording of Paganini's Vioiln Concerto No. 1 coupled with the Carmen Fantasy is a tour de force in violin virtuosity, and also inspired me to work towards a life in music.
Interestingly, much of Sarasate's music is often discounted as being merely a technical platform for the violin soloist. It is not so with this Fantasy, for in the technical challenges of the music lies the drama associated with the themes from the opera. A well-played Carmen Fantasy can be as moving as a well-played Beethoven Sonata, though in a completely different way. While the Beethoven speaks on a somewhat more transcendental level, the Carmen celebrates the nature of man, and can well be a testament to his potential to achieve paranormal feats. Comprised of an Introduction and four sections, the fantasy weaves through the sex and passion of "Carmen," with the violin singing, flirting, and dancing illicitly.
One must remember that this piece is a Fantasy on an Opera, and it therefore mirrors the moods and atmospheres of "Carmen." It contains passages of passion, rage, love, betrayal, deceit, whimsy, wit, and excitement. Above all else, the piece should be enjoyed, reveled in, and loved for its simple and exhilarating form.
Corigliano Sonata for Violin and Piano (1963)
John Corigliano's Sonata for Violin and Piano is almost a perfect foil to Aaron Copland's in its unconscious pursuit of a modern rendering of an American emotionality. The music gesticulates, sings, dances, cries, and rejoices on an exaggerated scale. Written in 1963, the Violin Sonata is anything but whitewashed, and carries an extremely quirky, flawed humanity that is heard through its use of rhythm, and its harmonic fickleness; for instance, the piece is quite tonal, though often exhibits a major triad against a flat third, giving it an off-kilter and eccentric quality. This eccentricity is also found in the piece's stylistic eclecticism, as each movement is truly a window into a different scene, with different characters and a different set of motivations. (It might warrant a title such as "Four Short Films," because though they are distinctly separate pieces, they are indeed a more effective communication as a set of four.) At a time when most American composers were writing atonal, serialized pieces, the Corigliano Sonata flies in the face of such an establishment, with its traditional form, Stravinsky-esque rhythm and harmony and, at moments, nearly Brahmsian lushness. Corigliano describes the piece as "optimistic" and "bright," though its darker moments are, in my opinion, borne out of the conscience of a nuclear-age reality in which we live.
Gershwin/Heifetz Three Preludes for Violin and Piano
George Gershwin composed the Preludes for Piano in 1926, two years after Rhapsody in Blue, and two years prior to An American in Paris. Transcribed for Violin and Piano by the supremely canonized virtuoso of all violinists, Jascha Heifetz, these three picturesque cultural snapshots are even more vivid than the original solo piano version. While Heifetz's transcription adds a virtuosic flair (no doubt to showcase his deistic technique), the inclusion of the violin brings a singing element to the texture that provides drama and contrast. Gershwin was born of Jewish immigrant parents in New York, and his style of composition is an American blend of ragtime, blues, jazz (as it would eventually be known), and European classical tradition. DuBose Heyward, author of the novel from which Porgy and Bess was spawned, recounts a story in Norman Lebrecht's Book of Musical Anecdotes:
The Gullah Negro prides himself on what he calls 'shouting.' This is a complicated pattern beaten out by feet and hands as an accompaniment to the spirituals and is indubitably an African survival. I shall never forget the night when, at a Negro meeting on a remote sea-island, George started 'shouting' with them. And eventually to their huge delight stole the show from their 'champion' shouter. I think he is the only white man in America who could have done it.
Perhaps Marshall Mathers would currently challenge Mr. Heyward's assertion, though it is valuable to note that the concept of crossing racial boundaries in pursuit of artistic cultural reflection is, by now, an established phenomenon. Gershwin was an innovator, helping to fuse the ideals of accessible expression and high art. Perhaps this is the American aesthetic, or at least an aspect of it.
Copland Sonata for Violin and Piano (1943)
If Aaron Copland's Sonata for Violin and Piano represents a panoramic view of an idealized American nostalgia, rife with pasture and plain, rolling green mountains and New England church steeples, one may reasonably point to the fact that this depiction is no longer of our present America. Nonetheless, it is helpful to embrace one's own cultural roots, especially in an amalgamated society that originally sought to abolish such a concept. It is interesting to consider that one of the first so-called "American" composers finds his voice through the seemingly un-American idea of cultural nostalgia. Written in 1943, the piece vividly portrays the stark simplicity of a Puritan value system; One might envision the white, bare walls of a small chapel in Massachusetts, its modest inhabitants singing inherited versions of old English hymns. There is also a fiddling, hoe-down element to the piece, which is especially prevalent in its third movement. This type of music can also be heard in Copland's Appalachian Spring, which depicts a wedding celebration in colonial Pennsylvania. Copland's populist harmonic language, his use of perfect intervals such as fourths and fifths, is ubiquitous in the Violin Sonata, and lends the piece a sense of the vast and unscathed landscape of a country that knows no concept of land ownership, and no frontier. These consonant sounds effectively depict nature's perfection and transcendent beauty—Beethoven was aware of this, and calls upon them at the opening of his Ninth Symphony to conjure a Natural and Universal context.
Vivaldi Concerto for Violin and Strings in D Major, RV 222
I often browse through record stores, and one day I came upon a CD by a violinist named Giuliano Carmignola. I was immediately drawn to this great Italian name, and was hugely intrigued to find that the album consisted of "Six Late Vivaldi Concerti." My father always enjoyed the joke that Vivaldi wrote one concerto 400 times and, after years of hearing this old joke, I had almost begun to believe it. Luckily for all of us, it is not true in the least! For me, the RV 222 in D Major is a jewel. It is full of compelling thematic ideas, variations, and asymmetrical phrases. Just when one thinks he might be able to predict what is about to come next, the music winks, and veers into uncharted terrain.
Bach Sonata No. 3 in C Major, BWV 1005
One rainy night in Cleveland, with a fellow violinist-friend of mine, Jean-Sebastien Roy, I listened to this piece on a record of the young Yehudi Menuhin. Somehow, on the occasion of that particularly cold, hunkered-down evening, and thanks to the sincerity of Menuhin's rendering, the idea of "Le Cathedrale" emerged as a viable image for the work's message, and also as the perfect moniker for this piece.
The Sonata sounds as though it should be played in a large, sacred space, and as a musical depiction of what this awesome space represents. It is an exploration that begins from the depths and far reaches of experience, and rises with a steady determination. The Fuga, which is the work's core, is also the most immense struggle. Its subject, at first a tentative, fragmented shred of a German folksong, emerges as if from ascetic rigors: triumphant, joyful and victorious. An almost bardic love song follows, and finally a jubilant, fiddle-tune of a dance.
Prokofiev Sonata No. 1 in f minor for Violin and Piano, Op. 80
Paul Kantor, my former teacher, once joked that this was a "Nick-piece." This Sonata has long fascinated me, and I'm fortunate to finally have the chance to perform it. I've enjoyed the intense hours of rehearsal with Adam, and the great ideas of his teacher, Boris Berman, who pointed out that the third movement of this work was originally conceived as the love scene from "Romeo and Juliet."
Prokofiev finished writing the piece in 1944, though he began composing it in 1936. It is dedicated to my favorite violinist, David Oistrakh, and bears the mark of this virtuoso's style. Oistrakh premiered this Sonata with pianist Lev Oborin in October of 1946. The dark, dazzling sounds of the music are reflective of the time and climate out of which this piece was borne. Prokofiev described the Violin Sonata No. 1 as follows:
In mood it is more serious than the Second [Sonata]. The first movement, Andante assai, is severe in character and is a kind of extended introduction to the second movement, a sonata allegro, which is vigorous and turbulent, but has a broad second theme. The third movement is slow, gentle, and tender. The finale is fast and written in complicated rhythm.
It is also worthwhile to read the description of the First Sonata by Prokofiev's Russian biographer Israel Nestyev: "...the meditation of an ancient bard on the fate of the motherland; ...a scene of brutal encounter between warring forces; ...a poetic image of a young girl's lament; and...a hymn to the might of Russia in arms, a paean to the people's freedom and strength."
Schumann Sonata No. 1 in a minor for Violin and Piano, Op. 105
I was deeply moved and inspired by a performance given by violinist Leonidas Kavakos in Stuttgart, Germany. Perhaps the experience was invigorating partially due to the fact that the concert did not begin until 9 PM, and the relatively late hour added to the profound effect of the music.
This Sonata portrays the dark side of intense emotion; that is, joy and rage may both give way to ecstatic feelings, though an ecstatic rage is a perversion, decidedly dark and demented. Schumann wrote the piece in 1851, only a few years before going completely crazy, and it is not difficult to hear the schizophrenic outbursts in the music. What is perhaps most moving is not so much the depth of despair, but the poignant moments of lucidity and warmth that break through, like unexpected sunlight.
The marking of the first movement, "Mit leidenschaftlichem Ausdruck," is translated "with passionate expression." As the Sonata moves from this pulsating, impassioned first movement, through a bi-polar Allegretto, and to the final Lebhaft, passionate expression gives way to a tortured, stormy, tumultuous ending.
Chausson Poeme for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 25
We are blessed to have the small but uniquely meaningful contribution of Ernest Chausson to music literature. It is also safe to say that had he not tragically crashed into a pole while riding his bicycle at the age of 44, we would have even more enchanting and scintillating examples of his colorful work.
Chausson was inspired to write "Poeme" after reading a short story by Ivan Turgenev (1818-1883), entitled "The Song of Triumphant Love." (This is not unlike Debussy's own Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, inspired by Mallarme's poem in 1894).
The story is of Italian origin, and tells of two young men, best of friends, who fall hopelessly in love with the same woman. Of the two, one is taller, artistically inclined, while the other is more musical, and both physically appealing to women in their own ways. Fabio, the artist, becomes the husband of the coveted Valeria, and Muzio, the music-oriented best friend, vows to leave the city, never to return until his passion for the woman has run completely dry. Fabio and Valeria live happily for five years when, surprisingly, Muzio returns, having journeyed throughout the far east. Over dinner, he tells his old friends of his journeys through Persia, Arabia, and India, displaying artifacts, jewels, spices and exotic wines. He insists that they all partake of a certain sweet and aromatic wine, and he mysteriously invokes some incantation over the glasses. Valeria then asks him of his musical endeavors, and here I quote Turgenev, Chausson's inspiration:
He ordered the Malay to bring him his Indian violin. It resembled present-day ones, except that instead of four strings it had three, the top of it was covered in bluish snakeskin and the delicate reed bow had a semi-circular appearance, and on the end of it glittered a pointed diamond.
First of all Muzio played several melancholy—as he called them—folk songs, strange and even savage to Italian ears; the sound of the metallic strings was mournful and feeble. But when Muzio began the final song, the very sound suddenly grew stronger and quivered resonantly and powerfully; a passionate melody poured out from beneath the broad sweeps of the bow, poured out in beautiful sinuous coils like that very snake whose skin covered the top of the violin; and the melody burned with such fire, was radiant with such triumphant joy, that both Fabio and Valeria were pieced to their very hearts and tears came into their eyes; and Muzio, with his head bent forward, pressed over the violin, his cheeks grown pale and his brows drawn together in one straight line, seemed even more concentrated and solemn—and the diamond on the end of the violin bow shed sparkling rays as it moved, as if it had also been ignited by the fire of the wondrous song…."What is it? It's a melody I heard once on the isle of Ceylon. The song is considered by the people there to be a song of happy and satisfied love…" [and] on saying goodbye, he pressed her hand ever so firmly, pushing his fingers into her palm and looking her so insistently in the face that she, though she did not raise her eyes, nonetheless felt the look on her suddenly burning cheeks.
Written for famed violinist-composer Eugene Ysaye, Poeme is a work about a violinist, for a violinist, and prescribing to the Italian myth of the violin's very lure. It blends the French impressions of the East with the Italian affect of drama, and is a unique masterpiece in the history of music.
Subito was written in 1992, the same year as Lutoslawski's formidable fourth symphony, and one of the composer's final offerings. Commissioned for the 1994 Indianapolis Violin Competition, this sleek, edgy piece exhibits a combination of demanding violinistic pyrotechnics set against warm, singing, and eerily haunting melodies. Because of the work's short length, these drastic opposites are forced into a small space in time, allowing for sudden shifts between disparate rhetorical gestures. These sudden shifts echo the piece's title, which means "suddenly", or "quickly". The abrupt opening, an angst filled descending squalor of 32nd notes from D to D-flat, is followed by a sharp, reflexive piano entrance: a sustained dissonance that directly contrasts the gesture of the violin. This sets the tone for a work that is both exotically enticing yet nasty and brutish.
Bach Ciaccona from Partita No. 2 in d minor, BWV 1004
The Ciaconna, from the Partita No. 2 in d minor, BWV 1004, stands alone as the most monumental single movement in the solo violin repertoire. Though it is the fifth and final movement of the d minor Partita, it is often performed alone, due both to its complete self-sufficiency as a piece of music, as well as to its length. A recent project of the Hilliard Ensemble and baroque violinist Christopher Poppen has persuasively linked the Ciaconna to Lutheran Church Chorales. In fact, all of Bach's six Sonatas and Partitas have links and references to particular Chorales, which in turn identify elements of Christ's life. For instance, the first Sonata and Partita, coupled together, refer to the incarnation of Christ, the second set to His death and resurrection, and the third to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
Without becoming long-winded, it is important to also note the numerological, cryptological references and messages within Bach's work. For example, the first four bars of the Ciaconna contain 37 pitches. Christ's monogram, XP, adds to 37 (x=22, p=15, in the order of the Latin alphabet). This is coupled with the clear Chorale theme in the "cantus firmus," or "bass" line of the chords, "Christ lag in Todesbanden" (Christ lay in Death's bonds). This is a lot of information, especially considering that it covers but four bars of a fifteen-minute piece.
The other half of the Ciaconna's mystery is its link to Maria Barbara, Bach's wife who died, unbeknownst to Bach, while he was away for a period of three months. He returned, in 1720, only to find that the wife he had left in good health had been buried the previous week. To quote Helga Thoene, "..many compositional devices and extra-musical constructs suggest that this 'dance' was written as a 'tombeau'—an epitaph in music—for Maria Barbara Bach, dedicated to her memory." The Ciaconna has three main components; two outer sections in d minor, flanking a middle D Major section. They may be described this way:
Section 1: Tragic, Mournful, yet hopeful in the promise of resurrection
Section 2: Sublime, Heavenly, Percussive and Trumpeting Christ's glory
Section 3: Return to Earthly, Contemplative of Christ's Passion, Prayerful
Finally, I have chosen only the main Chorale text to supply. There are numerous others, which help to shed even more light on individual sections of the music. The text of "Christ lag in Todesbanden" appropriately frames the entire work:
Christ lay in death's bondage;
For all our sin was given;
He is once more arisen
And hath us brought true life now;
For this shall we joyful be,
To God giving praise and gratitude,
And singing Alleluia
Beethoven Sonata No. 7 for Violin and Piano in c minor, Op. 30 No. 2
The Sonata for Piano and Violin in c minor must be considered as one of Beethoven's most deeply moving and dramatic works of this genre. The key of c minor is a characteristically dramatic, serious, and poignant area for Beethoven; works such as the 5th Symphony, the String Quartet Op. 18 No. 4, and the "Pathetique" piano Sonata, are all based in c minor. To the untrained ear, any of these pieces would still be immediately identifiable as Beethoven, and it may be said that they exhibit Beethoven's most popular personality of purposeful artistic expressionism. That is, the main point of this music is not to entertain or to serenade, as was the expectation of Classical Vienna, but rather to intensely communicate the artist's (Beethoven's) deeply emotional sentiments. As the first composer to thoroughly burst the bonds of the patronage system, effectively establishing the rank of composer as an artistic genius to be embraced by his or her society, Beethoven began addressing his compositions to ideas embodied in figureheads such as Napoleon and Tsar Alexander of Russia. These were not men who commissioned works from Beethoven, as did Lobkowitz and Lichnowsky, but men who stood for ideals that Beethoven deemed as noble. (Of course, Beethoven scratched out the infamous dedication to Napoleon of the 3rd symphony after the atrocity of the dictator's intent became clear. Still, the symphony is dedicated to an ideal, "to a great hero.") This sonata is the second in a group of three, Op. 30, dedicated to Tsar Alexander.
The first movement, marked Allegro con brio (fast with brightness), is written in a serious vein, though it contains an element of jocular sarcasm. For instance, the opening is a scurrying, devilish set of twists and turns, with an anticipatory rumbling in the left hand of the piano. Abrupt and declamatory chords are traded between violin and piano, but then give way to a march-like theme which seems more fit for toy soldiers than an army of Hell's generals. This theme contrasts sharply with the more mysterious first theme, and at the end of a rather strict sonata form movement, Beethoven combines elements of each theme in the coda to bring a unifying element to close the piece. In many ways, this opening movement, which explores many emotions of brooding, triumph, yearning, and capriciousness, can be seen as a microcosm of the entire piece.
The second movement, Adagio Cantabile (Slow and Singing), addresses the brooding and yearning to which the development of the first movement briefly hints. It is easily the longest of the four movements, and the emotional core of the piece. Set in A-flat major, at the sub-mediant (a third below) of c minor, the tonal center is just offsetting enough to give the movement its own sound-world, creating a transcendent effect and expressing intimate human ponderings. This style of transcendental writing would become more pronounced and exaggerated in Beethoven's later works, such as the cavatina from Op. 130, or the Hymn of Thanksgiving to the Godhead of Op. 132. This movement of the c minor Sonata approaches the purity of beauty found in the second movements of the Pathetique and Moonlight Sonatas, both works which define Beethoven's most famous and accessible characteristics.
The third movement, marked Scherzo (Joke), refers to the toy soldier joke of the first movement, and uses the same rhythmic motive of a dotted eighth-note and a sixteenth-note. This stuttering, off-kilter dance is contrasted by the mock pomposity and fat congeniality of the trio section. Beethoven actually considered the possibility of retracting this movement from the work, perhaps because of its abruptly short length, but it stands well as a breath of fresh air between the intense searchings of the adagio and the conflict and tumult of the finale.
The Allegro Finale is somewhat of a battle scene, with themes presented in minor and in major, dialogue between violin and piano, and fluctuation between triumph and despair. By the time the movement reaches the fugato section, an homage to the strict imitative style of Bach, it seems that the piece will resolve itself sternly and forebodingly. Beethoven, however, works away from the fugato, and explores the movement's main lyrical motif in distant key areas. Thus, the piece is given a feeling of reflection, of one final, whimsical and nostalgic moment, before a brisk Presto leaves no doubts that the piece will fly to a triumphant but sinister close in c minor.
Written in 1802, the piece comes from a period of great productivity for Beethoven, and also from the year in which he penned his Heileginstadt Testament, a personal document in which the composer calls upon himself to write for the sake of humanity, despite his ironic and imprisoning deafness. This writing was not known publicly until after Beethoven's death, and helps to explain the probing, introspective, and stormy nature of works in this period. More importantly, it asserts the inherent necessity of art for humanity, and of Beethoven's understanding of the divine as an empowering force to which he owed his abilities. If Bach was inspired to write for God, Beethoven was inspired to write for man on behalf of God, in essence the Messiah of music on earth.
The Sonata also provides beautiful insight into the development of this particular genre. Noting the title, for piano and violin, the medium derived from writing piano sonatas with an accompanying violin obligato. In this Sonata, the writing is still more technically demanding for the piano, but the line of the violin plays a key role as its own musical voice, one which converses with the piano, sings in unison with it, and argues with it. The increasing virtuosity of the violin writing foreshadows the 9th Sonata, named for violinist Rodolphe Kreutzer, which demands the facility of any concerto written up to that point.
Laurie-- maybe it would be an idea to create a space for performers to post program notes on violinist.com?
And yes, it's a great idea to have a place for program notes. At the moment, though, my programer (hubby Robert) has devoted lots of time to re-working the Directory (so new members are featured and people can search for pros, amateurs, students, parents, etc.) and some other new fun stuff, TBA soon! But I will add "place for program notes" to the list.....
just wanted to give you a little correction on one of your facts: Sarah chang's debut album was of her at the age of nine not twelve (just thought you wanted to know her exact age).
anyway, great notes! i especially liked the chaconne details.
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