interview with Rachel Barton Pine: Sonatas by Mendelssohn, Pisendel and Corigliano

September 8, 2009, 2:57 PM ·

As usual, Chicago-based violinist Rachel Barton Pine is very, very busy these days. Next Tuesday is her New York recital debut, and on the same day she releases a compilation of her own compositions, called The Rachel Barton Pine Collection. This is in addition to the release of a new album by her Baroque group, Trio Settecento, later this month, called A German Bouquet.

Rachel Barton Pine. Image courtesy the artist.We have chatted before, and as always, Rachel is profoundly engaged with all of her projects, eager to explore and share her insights on deep mysteries of violindom, such as, who inspired Bach to write the Sonatas and Partitas we violinists hold so dear? And, could a mere mortal like me write a cadenza, when greats like Joachim wrote such definitive ones? And, what do you mean, playing in a Baroque trio is really like jammin' in a band?

But first, I had a rather more obvious question for this veteran of the concert stage:

Laurie: Have you really never played a solo recital in New York?

Rachel: Not in New York City! It's also the inauguration of the first season of the annual New York Chamber Music Festival, started by violinist, Elmira Darvarova, longtime concertmaster of the Met.

She asked me if I'd like to bring in my chamber group, and I couldn't do that because Trio Settecento is already booked to play at the Miller Theatre in December, so I said, "As it turns out, somehow I've never done my New York recital debut. Why don't we just do that?" So that's how it happened.

Laurie: Tell me about what you are playing.

Rachel: I'll start with the second piece on the program, Mendelssohn's F major sonata, which is one of my all-time favorite sonatas. Of course, it's Mendelssohn's big anniversary year, and Elmira specifically requested that sonata. I said I was going to play it anyway!

I actually got to know the piece back in 1992, when I was 17 and participating in the Bach International Competition in Leipzig. It was a required piece for all of the contestants. Besides winning the gold medal, I also won the special prize for the best performance of that sonata, which could have gone to any of the contestants, regardless of whether they were a laureate. I really just fell in love with the piece then, and I've performed it very often since then. So regardless of the fact that it's Mendelssohn's anniversary year, I'd always considered that one to be among my top finalists for potential inclusion in my eventual New York debut!

The 1838 sonata is one of Mendelssohn's latest works. It was not published during his lifetime or even shortly after, despite being a fully mature work, absolutely the pinnacle of his art, fully completed – there was no reason not to publish it, but somehow it just wasn't. I guess the manuscript languished, until 1953, when Menuhin found it in a library. So it's quite an amazing story, the fact that it was sort of lost for a century. He'd written an earlier sonata in F minor, in 1823, and that one was published, but this 1838 is really the superior work, and it's one of his best compositions. It has the typical Mendelssohnian lightness to it, but it also has great, great depth.

So then, I thought, when you think of Mendelssohn, you always think of Bach, and Bach is the obvious thing to do. But then I thought, what about the guy who inspired Bach's unaccompanied sonatas? Why don't I do (Johann Georg) Pisendel? The interesting thing about the Pisendel unaccompanied sonata is that it's actually considered to be very likely – it can't be 100 percent proven – but there is very compelling circumstantial evidence that this was a piece that inspired the creation of Bach's Six Unaccompanied Sonatas and Partitas.

Laurie: That sort of gives me chills to think about!

Rachel: Pisendel was the greatest violinist in Germany during his lifetime: he was concertmaster at Dresden and just a great virtuoso. We do know that Bach was familiar with him and his playing, and it's very intriguing, the idea that right after Pisendel writes this sonata, in its unusual format for unaccompanied violin, Bach picks up his pen and writes his. What's especially interesting is that the last movement of Pisendel's sonata is a gigue with a variation, and Bach's first dance suite, his Partita No. 1, was a set of dance movements with variations (doubles). The standard Baroque dance suite for a performed sonata was allemande-courante-sarabande-gigue, and yet in his Partita No. 1, Bach does allemande-courante-sarabande-bourree. So maybe he didn't want to step on Pisendel's toes (by doing a gigue).

There are also accounts of Pisendel performing unaccompanied three-voice fugues. We know that he didn't write any of his own. Of course, in those days, he could have perhaps been improvising them, but more likely, he probably was playing Bach's. He probably was the only violinist during Bach's lifetime, besides Bach himself, to play Bach's unaccompanied violin works. So the connections are pretty incredible, and with everything we know about Mendelssohn revering Bach and resurrecting Bach, I thought that it would fun to go one step further, with Pisendel, and lead into Mendelssohn that way.

Laurie: I think of the Bach Sonatas and Partitas barely escaping being used for butter wrappings...

Rachel: That's actually a bit of an urban legend. It was only a copy, not the one-and-only manuscript, in that story. But still, it's a pretty good tale!

Laurie: Since you've researched this very thoroughly, what about Part II, of the solo Sonatas and Partitas for violin? The ones we play are labeled "Part I."

Rachel: Actually, because we do not have Bach's original manuscript of the six Cello Suites, I agree with the theory that the six Cellos Suites are the "Part II." Think about the context: with the violin works, Bach is trying to see how much density he can create in a not-naturally-polyphonic instrument. In the cello works , Bach is actually going in the total opposite direction in terms of almost seeing how few notes he can use to still imply polyphony, really going as spare with his textures as he can, to really let the ear fill in the gaps. It's also suspected that he may have originally composed on a viola de spalla. Bach played the violin and also the viola; there are some intervals in the cello suites that really are not-quite-reachable by a cellist's hand. It would make sense that if Bach was writing, he would have had the viola in his hands, and possibly even this instrument called a viola de spalla, which was not exactly a viola, but kind of a bigger, bass-ier instrument, still held on the shoulder, that used to sometimes take the place of the cello in ensembles. That's a little more controversial part of the theory.

I don't think that the 19th century people's idea that these were "theoretical pieces only" is at all reasonable. I think he meant for them to be played. There are accounts of Bach playing violin fugues in church. But I also think that they were, like many of his pieces, also exercises in experimentation, and it really does make two sides of the same coin: to see how many notes, or how few notes, you could use to explore this world of polyphony on the four-stringed instrument.

Laurie: Tell me more about the Pisendel Sonata.

Rachel: The Pisendel Sonata is a very strange creature. It's neither a sonata de camera – a chamber sonata, which is a dance suite, that Bach called his "Partitas," – nor is it a sonata de chiesa – a church sonata, which is typically slow movement, fugue, slow movement, fast movement. The first two movements look like they are the first two movements of a sonata de chiesa: a slow opening movement, just like the openings of Bach's G minor and A minor sonata, a lot of written-out, improvised ornamentation. Very imaginative, very spontaneous, and slow. And the second movement, while it's not fugal, it's definitely polyphonic and definitely a serious movement, not at all a dance movement. And then suddenly you have this Gigue and Variation. The sonata feels balanced, but it's a very unusual grouping.

Laurie: Like you go to church and then dance a gigue...

Rachel: Yes, or like those children's flip books, where you have the head of an ostrich and the tail of an alligator! Who knows why he did it; he was pretty orthodox in a lot of his other compositions. All I can think is, the fact that an unaccompanied sonata was such an unusual thing, I guess he felt that he didn't have to abide by any restrictions, because that genre didn't have as hard-and-fast conventions as did sonatas with continuo.

And besides all these historically interesting things that I've been talking about, it's an absolutely beautiful piece. Ultimately, that's the arbiter of whether to perform something or not!

The John Corigliano Sonata is the other big sonata that I'm playing.

Laurie: Is this the "Red Violin" piece?

Rachel: No, this is actually the sonata that he wrote in the 1960s for his father, John Corigliano Sr., the concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic. It was one of his first major works that hit the mainstream, and interestingly, it's one of the only second-half-of-the-20th-century violin sonatas that's made it into the violin repertory. It really does deserve that place in the repertoire, because it's a masterpiece. It's everything that we think of as Corigliano: well-crafted, imaginative, modern and contemporary, but without being unappealing in any way. It's very accessible, but without being pandering.

What I've always enjoyed about John Corigliano is that he seems to be very true to his own voice, but at the same time, he does do what composers of previous centuries all did, which is, write for his audience, write a piece that is meant to be embraced by an audience.

The Corigliano Sonata is in four movements, and it's a very melodic as well as virtuosic piece, with wonderful interplay between the violin and the piano. He describes the character of the sonata overall as "optimistic." I can't recall ever hearing a composer describe their own sonata with that word. With everything going on in people's lives today, and in our country, an optimistic sonata is definitely a good one to take out there. It's not a piece that is unrelentingly cheerful to the point of getting annoying. The third movement, which is the slowest movement, is very dark and brooding. But overall, the feeling the sonata leaves you with, is an uplifting one.

Laurie: I suppose that optimism isn't unrelentingly cheerful, not really.

Rachel: There would be no reason to define yourself as optimistic if you weren't faced with the decision: is the glass half full or half empty?

For the last piece...normally I'd play a big violin showpiece. That being said, this is the New York Chamber Music Festival, and the organizer specifically asked me not to do something where the piano would have a merely accompanying role.. So, how could I achieve my goals while still adhering to her vision? I thought of the perfect piece: the Franz Lizst Hungarian Rhapsody, for violin and piano. It's actually his Rhapsody No. 12 in C sharp minor, originally written for piano during his early virtuosic period, and about 40 years later, during his impressionistic chamber music period, the period from which we much less frequently hear the works of Lizst, even though they're phenomenal, he actually went back to this piece and transcribed it, with some input from Josef Joachim, for violin and piano.

It's a fascinating piece. It's a true work of chamber music, the violin and piano parts not only are equally important and equally virtuosic, but there's also a lot of interplay between them. I would describe the piece as Lizst's further thoughts upon the subject, not just a transcription. He eliminates sections, he adds entirely new sections, he changes the figuration, he changes the order of some of the bits of music, and he really rearranges it, besides changing the instrumentation. It really is transformed into an entirely new work. It's this incredible duet, where the pianist has Liszt-ian stuff all over the keyboard, and the violinist has everything from runs to fingered octaves to all kinds of crazy stuff. Yet it's still, at its heart, clearly a work of chamber music. So it's an amazing and unique piece.

Laurie: I don't think I've ever heard it!

Rachel: It's almost never played. The music is out of print. I was able to acquire it through the kindness of the Liszt Society in London. I'd made an album in 1997 of original violin works of Franz Liszt, it was half of a planned two-disc survey, and of course Dorian Recordings, which I made my Sarasate and Liszt recordings with early on in my recording career, was out of business for a long time – disc two was never made, and the Hungarian Rhapsody was planned for disc two. So I was planning to record it, but hadn't yet. I do still plan to record it, maybe for Liszt's anniversary...

Laurie: It doesn't sound like the kind of piece where you call the pianist in at the last minute and say, "Okay, play this!"

Rachel: Exactly. And it's not something that even a lot of very fine collaborative pianists might be up to. But Matt Hagle, my regular collaborator, is an absolute virtuoso in his own right. So it's great to have somebody that is a wonderful artist for sonatas, and a sensitive accompanist for the type of character pieces and recitativo things that I would ever want to do, like some of the Maud Powell albumleaf pieces or a Sarasate Carmen Fantasy, and he also has all the chops and the fiery virtuosity to join me on this Liszt thing.

Laurie: Tell me about your book, what's in it, and what let to that project?

Rachel: It's really a dream come true, the fact that it will be sold everywhere one can buy Carl Fischer books. And best of all, all the people who have been asking me, all through the years, I want to play this piece, and that piece that I heard you perform or that I heard on your CD and where can I find the sheet music, all these years I've been saying "I'm so sorry, I wish I could give you this but I don't have it available..." Now I can finally say, "Yes! It is available, you can buy it!"

There are some of my own original compositions, like my "Introduction, Theme and Variations on God Defend New Zealand," my "Introduction, Theme and Variations on 'The Birthday Song,'" and then another category is transcriptions, things like my "Star Spangled Banner," my arrangement of Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique which appeared on my Instrument of the Devil album; my arrangement of Caprice on Dixie which appeared on my Maud Powell album: all the different pieces that have appeared on all of my recordings, and my own various cadenzas, like Brahms, Beethoven, all the Mozarts, Paganini; and my editions with cadenzas of the Meude-Monpas Concerto and the J.C. Bach "Sinfonia Concertante" for violin and cello, which will actually be the first edition of that work with a piano reduction. It also has my edition of Albéniz: Asturias, which will be on my upcoming album, Capricho Latino, which will be released in May 2010.

The one exception is my rock arrangements from my Storming the Citadel CD. I'm still working on getting the sheet music for that stuff into the computer, and I'll be sure to let you know when it's ready.

Laurie: You must have had a pile a mile high, of all these pieces you'd composed and arranged.

Rachel: Yes. For a long time, a lot of them existed only in my brain, and of course, on recordings. They were on live concert recordings, but they'd never been written down anywhere. So to sit down and type them into Finale in the first place, was quite the undertaking.

What you have to always decide is, should I keep these pieces to myself, should I be the only one to perform my own pieces and arrangements? I thought about that for a while, and I ultimately decided that I don't see any point in hoarding my music like that. I would rather that more violinists get to enjoy it, and more audiences get to enjoy it. My friend Mark O'Connor always talks about what an overwhelming experience it is when he hears somebody else playing one of his compositions. I just can't wait for the first time when I get an e-mail from somebody saying, "Hey, I just performed your whatever-it-is."

As exciting as it would be for me to know that somebody else performed one of my things, it would be even more exciting for someone to say, 'I just performed my own Mozart cadenza, knowing that you had taken that step, that inspired me to do that.' I hope my book can show that a young, living person today can still do what the old dead guys did. I don't think I'm the only person capable of doing that, at all. Anybody can do it, if they just give it a try.

When I was a student, I used to think, I could never write a cadenza as good as Joachim. Then after I started writing cadenzas, in my teens, I realized, that's not even a legitimate way to look at things. It's not about whether yours is as good as somebody else's – yours is the only one that can be authentically you. If you perform your own pieces, that's how you'll be most authentic.

Laurie: When you wrote your own cadenzas, did you just sort of noodle around until you came upon what you liked, or were you doing it in your head, or a combination?

Rachel: Mostly with the violin in hand. Actually, I have a whole podcast episode about how to write your own cadenza. I went about it a bit methodically. Not really methodical from a theoretical standpoint, but say, for a Mozart cadenza: I would take a bunch of different existing ones that you can buy in the store -- various printed versions – and I gathered some data from them: I counted up how many measures each of them was – to get a sense of how short the shortest one was or how long the longest one was, just to know how long mine probably should be, to fit within the norm. Then I would look at how many different themes, or bits of musical material, each one used. It's interesting, some cadenzas will be built on only five bits of material, some cadenzas will reference as many as 12. Then I wanted to see which ones people were using, and also go to the orchestral score, not just the solo violin part. I would take a piece of music manuscript paper and make a list of all the bits of material I had to work with, that I could draw upon.

Then I would just start improvising. Now, you don't have to be an improviser to improvise – you don't have to be a person who can get up with a group of improvising musicians and play along. You can take a theme, and you can fool around with it. What would this major-key theme be like if I played it in a minor key? What would it be like if I added a trill? What if I added a descant variation? What would it be like if I made it into triplets? You can look at other people's cadenzas and start to see the types of things they did with a theme. Do they play it four times, going around the circle of fifths? Do they play it twice as fast to make it into a little virtuosic lick? Do they play it in octaves? You don't want to copy anybody's idea, but let's say, they played the second theme in octaves, you could say, what happens if I play the third theme in octaves? Does that one work in octaves? There are only so many things you can do on the violin, like having the melody in one voice, with accompanimental voice trilling, Kreisler did that in part of his Brahms cadenza, that's a standard trick. So you can try that trick with other themes and see if it works for one of them.

The other thing is key changes. I would take other people's cadenzas and find where they were transitioning, where they landed in a new key, and see how many different tonics, major and minor, did they pass through, before they came to the end of the cadenza? Sometimes they would go through three keys, sometimes six keys. How many keys should I pass through to make this cadenza interesting? That is the number one mistake that somebody can make:. They can do all kinds of interesting things rhythmically, with variations, using different bits of the material, all this creative stuff, and then when you look at their final product, you realize that the entire cadenza is in only one key.

Laurie: Then it's boring.

Rachel: No matter what they do, it doesn't work. You have to change keys. You don't have to do it obsessively, like every two bars, but just make sure you do it enough that it has some development.

Studying existing cadenzas for a work that has had cadenzas written for it is a great jumping-off point because you can analyze all these things. From that, you can start to figure out the parameters you need to use when building your own cadenza.

Laurie: It sounds like a really fun project.

Rachel: It is! And even if you go through all of that, and you write a cadenza, and you're too chicken to play it in public – you shouldn't be, but let's just say you really are – it wasn't wasted time. The thing that most surprised me when I started composing was that I realized I was having a whole new set of insights, as an interpreter, that I never would have had, had I not been a creator. After crafting your own cadenza, when you go back to Joachim's cadenza to the Mozart concerto, you realize, wait, over here he's having this little spontaneous connector bit before he arrives at his next idea, and now you know it's not just these notes and these notes, but this one is the connector bit and this one is the main idea. You may have never noticed that if you hadn't been crafting your own.

Laurie: Tell me about your new CD, A German Bouquet.

Rachel: It's actually the second in a planned multi-CD series with my chamber group, Trio Settecento. A lot of period instrument albums of the Baroque period focus on a very narrow swath of the repertoire, a particular composer or set of works. We've taken the opposite approach, representing broad regions, kind of like we would do in a concert. What's interesting about our period instrument ensemble is I really have a foot in both worlds, I've been involved in historically-informed performance since age 14, I'm not a concert artist who just recently discovered this world. I've been steeped in it since I was a student. I also spent more of my time in the traditional concert world. So I'm in the position of being a fully legitimate period instrument performer, but not a specialist, kind of a switch-hitter. In a way, this means we get to introduce this historically-informed stuff to regular violin fans.

Both John Mark Rozendaal, the bowed-bass player, and David Schrader, who plays the various keyboard instruments, were some of my original period instrument coaches when I was a student. Then in 1996, Cedille Records invited me to record an album of the complete Handel Sonatas, and they said I could do it with any accompaniment I wanted, and so I said I wanted to do it with legitimate basso continuo -- with Baroque cello and harpsichord – and I know just the two guys I want!

The Handel Sonatas was a kind of half-way in the middle approach, I used A=440, I used a  modernized 1617 Amati, but with a Baroque bow, with a modern use of vibrato but historically informed phrasing and my own original ornamentation. It was sort of contemporary and period instrument performance blended together. The album got so much attention, people started asking, when is your trio performing again? And we really had only been together to do the album, but we had so much fun playing together. So we formed Trio Settecento in 1997.

It's been really fun to evolve with these artists, it's one of those amazing experiences that you can only have with a permanently-formed, long-time chamber ensemble, where you really can sense each other's ideas and really breathe as one. What's fun about the fact that we play Baroque period music is that not only do you have all those pleasures you have with a string quartet, but you have the added pleasure of improvisation. We do get to make up a lot of our own notes. David will be doing some realization in his right hand, because most of the keyboard parts are bassline with chord numbers. He plays the bassline with his left hand and improvises his right hand. He'll play some kind of clever thing, and then John Mark might play a little response to that on the cello, and I'll add a little something in the violin part to blend with that – and we're really getting to jam in concert. That kind of spontaneity is so fun, it's like a jazz ensemble or something.

Our first album under our own name came out a few years ago, and it was called An Italian Sojourn, and it was 17th- and 18th-century Italian music, and this album focuses on 17th- and 18th-century German music. Our next one is going to be French, and then after that British.

With Germany, Bach looms so large, that everything comes back to him. There's nobody like Bach, nobody can touch him. But Erlebach, the beauties of his harmonies are just so exquisite. And Muffat, with all of his stream-of-consciousness type architecture; and the cheerfulness, the exuberance, of Buxtehude. Each of these guys had a particular personality, and while Bach is the best, the world would be so much less rich without all these other wonderful voices. I think people are going to have a lot of fun discovering Krieger, and Schop, and Schmelzer. People who are Baroque fanatics might have already heard of them, but people who just love the violin may not have discovered them yet.


September 8, 2009 at 11:20 PM ·


an interview with real substance.

And yes,  the Mendelssohn sonata(s). Even the first one displays remarkble musical maturity.  How on earth is it we have sonatas by the composer of the most ubiquitous concerto on the planet that so many violinst aren`t even aware exist?

Thanks Rachel.



September 9, 2009 at 07:19 AM ·

Dear Rachel, it was a great and generous idea to publish a sheet music collection of your pieces including your variations. You will sell at least one copy ;-)

Thanks and best wishes,


September 9, 2009 at 03:53 PM ·

Great interview Laurie, really enjoyed it. 


September 9, 2009 at 04:07 PM ·

Excellent interview Laurie - such a lot of interesting facts and details - definitely makes me want to go and buy the Mendelssohn sonatas for a start!   I have a feeling Rachel's compositions will be rather beyond my technical abillities! 

September 9, 2009 at 04:36 PM ·

Very nice interview, thanks Laurie.

I tried to find the new book for pre-order, with all of the usual online suspects, with no luck.

I did call up Performers Music in Chicago (a very fine music store!) and pre-ordered it there.  They thought it would be out sometime next week. Woo Hoo!

or, (312) 987-1196


Also, where could one find the music for this particular Pisendel sonata?  Feeble googling attempts didn't turn up much....Anyone know?

September 10, 2009 at 12:25 PM ·


Laurie, thank you for such a great interview.  A wealth of information.

Miss Barton Pine, I have to say that I am fascinated by your interests and explorations of so many things.  Definitely inspiring.  I wish I could make you New York Recital, but unfortunately I will be playing a concert here in Canada the same night.  Best of luck though!  You have chosen such a wonderful program, I am sorry to have to miss it.


September 10, 2009 at 01:09 PM ·

Thanks for this interview, Laurie.  I think I could never get tired of hearing from Rachel Barton Pines.  She makes historical versions of music sound so interesting and so great for playing today.  I especially liked her her discussions of improvisation and writing her own variations.  I improvise much the way she does.  It must be our solid grounding in classical music that males it work this way.

One of my friends, a real music lover, started playing piano as a kid.  Then a horrible thing happened to her.  She had a stroke during her junior year in college.    As a result of the stroke, she all fine motor control of the right side of her body.  Unwilling to give up playing piano, she developed her own style of improvising.  She uses one finger of her left hand to play the melody and the other fingers of her left hand to improvise harmony.  She plays piano and organ regularly in her church.  I'm very proud of her.

I love Rachel Barton Pines's variations on Happy Birthday.  I will never get tired of listening to them.

Thanks again to Laurie Niles and Rachel Barton Pines.  I've never learned so much in such in such a short time and had so much fun doing it.

September 10, 2009 at 02:38 PM ·

A BIG Thank You to Rachel for giving the interview!  And to Laurie for making it possible!  I really learned alot, and I admire Rachel's research abilities as much as her playing!

Looking forwards to your new releases!


September 10, 2009 at 05:26 PM ·

Hi everyone, and thanks to all of you for your lovely comments, and to Rachel for a fascinating conversation.

For those of you who are interested in Rachel's book: It looks like there is now a link on Rachel's website for buying the book, and here it is:

She said she plans to also have a more detailed page about it on her website in the near future with a full description of what's in the book, but until about Saturday (when we take the contest down) you can find the table of contents on our contest page, (where you can also enter to win a copy of the book, we're giving away one copy this week.)

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