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Samuel Thompson

The Lone Violin - First Program Notes

June 2, 2007 at 7:46 PM

It may seem odd to think of Johann Sebastian Bach as a trailblazer; nevertheless, his Six Sonatas for Unaccompanied Violin are the cornerstones of the solo violin literature and the model for collections including Eugène Ysäye's Six Sonatas for Unaccompanied Violin and Nicolo Paganini's Twenty-Four Caprices.

Bach wrote his sonatas during his tenure at Kapellmeister and Director of Chamber Music at the court of Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen, a position which granted Bach a great deal of freedom, specifically a release from having to write full programs of church music. While at Cöthen Bach was required to write cantatas for secular events and was also blessed with a group of musicians that played at a higher level of proficiency than those with whom he worked at Weimar. Prince Leopold was also a learned and capable musician who entrusted Bach with the selection of two harpsichords, the mechanics of which influenced the keyboard works written during the composer's tenure at Cöthen.

While we tend to idealize many of the masters – not thinking of them in practical terms – it is safe to say that Bach found his new salary to be one of the greatest benefits of the position at Cöthen. With the salary being twice that of his predecessor's one can imagine that the sense of financial security and the psychic reward of being "highly valued" contributed to the freedom that enabled Bach to show his creative and compositional maturity in the works that came from this period. This body of work included the cello suites, the Brandenburg concertos, the violin/harpsichord sonatas, the violin concertos, the French and English Suites, many smaller works for chamber ensemble and students and the remarkable set of unaccompanied pieces for violin.

The sonatas and partitas show J. S. Bach's knowledge of violin playing and the instrument itself and may have been influenced by the music played by street musicians in both Weimar and Cöthen. While there is no direct information available proving Bach to be a "virtuoso" violinist, his early study of the violin – which led to his ability to take an orchestra appointment shortly after completing his early studies – undoubtedly gave him the practical knowledge he needed to write for the violin. There is also evidence of solo string playing having taken place in the courts of Weimar as Telemann dedicated his collection of solo violin sonatas to Prince Johann Ernst of Weimar in 1715, five years before Bach composed his. Not being a traveler, Bach spent a great deal of his time studying the works of French and Italian composers and the combination of research and environmental influences resulted in a set of sonatas unparalleled in complexity.

With Bach's sonatas as a guide to the violin's possibilities as a solo instrument, Nicolo Paganini's caprices as a guide to violinistic virtuosity, and his intimate familiarity with the works of Polish virtuoso violinist/composer/educator Henryk Weiniawski, Eugène Ysäye sat to write a fiendishly complicated "religious document" of his own in 1924: the Six Sonatas for Unaccompanied Violin, Op. 27. While Bach's musical insights came through his solitary studies, Ysäye's came through his place in the world as he was considered the greatest living violinist of his day and counted many of the most well-renowned artists of the time as friends. Ysäye's influence on musical matters in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is unquestionable: the Belgian Ysäye Foundation lists over 200 works that were dedicated to the master. Many works that have become staples of the "modern repertoire" are included in that list, including Cesar Franck's Sonata for Violin and Piano (written as a wedding gift), Gabriel Fauré's Piano Quintet No. 1, Vincent d'Indy's String Quartet No. 1, Ernest Chausson's Poeme for Violin and Orchestra and Claude Debussy's String Quartet. Fauré's Sonata in A Majorand Camille Saint-Saëns' Sonata for Piano and Violin – pieces that were premiered by Ysäye – have also maintained their positions as standards. Furthermore, Ysäye's influence on modern violin playing is evident today when listening to anyone who studied with Joseph Gingold, a student of Ysäye (and considered one of founders of the "American school of violin playing"): characteristics of the Gingold studio include musicmaking of an incredible emotional depth, miraculous clarity, an impeccable sense of musical structure and the voluptuous sound due to mastery of the bow, skills that Mr. Gingold learned from Ysäye and taught his students at Indiana University until his death.

The quality of Ysäye's friendships with other eminent violinist is most evident through studying his association with Fritz Kreisler, the Austrian violinist who over time displaced Ysaye as the king of string players during the early twentieth century. In an account written by Carl Flesch, Kreisler's 1899 debut was seen by many as the beginning of a golden age of violin playing. When interviewed by Arthur Abell, Ysäye spoke very highly of Kreisler's debut ("He is the Weiniawski of our day") and confidently of his future. It was not until 1907, however, that Kreisler truly made his mark on the world, and 1910 saw Kreisler's career at a marvelous peak: during that year he premiered Edward Elgar's epic Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, signed an exclusive recording contract with the Victor Phonograph Company that ensured his "superstar" status, and toured Russia with the assistance of Serge Koussevitzky. It was also during that year that Kreisler was invited to participate in informal chamber music gatherings held by Jacques Thibaud, the first of many during which Kreisler and Ysäye took turns playing viola.

Ysäye's honest and almost prophetic assessments of his peers and the sincerity that characterized his relationships should not be taken lightly by artists in any field, particularly those violinists currently working as orchestra members or participating in auditions and competitions. While our modern age seems to subconsciously support an almost destructive level of competition between young fiddlers, both Kreisler and Ysäye (and most of the artists of our day who have gained substantial international acclaim) possessed a healthy sense of self, neither of them allowing ambition to stand in the way of their enjoyment and admiration of each other. To honor their friendship Kreisler followed the example of many, dedicating his Recitativo and Scherzo to the Belgian master. Ysäye returned the gesture, dedicating the fourth of his six sonatas to Kreisler – even going so far as to quote Kreisler's compositions in its last movement.

Each of Ysäye's Six Sonatas for Unaccompanied Violin is dedicated to one of his peers: Joseph Szigeti, Jacques Thibaud, Georges Enescu, Fritz Kreisler, Mathieu Crickboom and Manuel Quiroga. The music language is both impressionistic and neoclassical, with the first two sonatas adhering to the four-movement form utilized by Bach and the later sonatas being characterized by their Debussyian sound and creation of "mood": the sixth of the set, dedicated to Quiroga, beautifully captures the bravado one associates with Latin culture while the third (titled "Ballade" and dedicated to Enescu) is an almost grotesque account of Eastern European mysticism that sonically and stylistically parallels Karol Szymanowski's works for the violin (one can almost hear the fortune teller at work during one of the slow sections). With his knowledge of the music of his time as well as his absolute mastery of the violin (many a fiddler trembles when thinking of the octaves and tenths that appear in the second, third and sixth sonatas) captured in these sonatas, Ysäye left a direct contribution to the course of violin playing itself and wrote as a composer of his time, capturing the spirit of his associates in the same manner as Richard Strauss in Ein Heldenleben and Edward Elgar both his Concerto for Violin and Orchestra and the Enigma Variations.

The Sonata in A Minor, dedicated to Thibaud, may have been inspired by mornings at Thibaud's home after their chamber music gatherings. Is it possible that Ysäye, waking groggily from an evening of wine and chamber music, heard his colleague practicing the first movement of Bach's Partita in E Major – and naturally responded with a scream, the memory of those morning leading to the incorporation of the dies irae, which is similar to the opening of the E Major prelude? Could the dies irae's appearance in the first movement actually be the musical description of a hangover, the title "Obsession" being Ysäye's description of a morning during which he wanted his friend NOT to practice? Speculation aside, Ysäye displayed his compositional prowess and profound understanding of Bach's life in the first movement of this sonata, transposing the E Major Prelude and recalling, with the dies irae, the period during which Bach wrote church music – in essence, writing a musical portrait of Bach's pre-Cöthen struggle to be freed from the tyranny of constant, machinelike church music composition.

The psychically free Bach wins the thematic battle of the first movement, but a subconscious descent into darkness takes place in the remaining movements, all of which are strongly influenced by the supernatural. The second movement, Malincolia, ends with the dies irae and is followed by the Danse des Ombres (the dance of the spirits), during which the dies irae is first presented in a major key and explored through a set of variations. It is during the fourth movement, Les Furies, that both terrible violinistic power and the synthesis of the modern, baroque and medieval are unleashed: in this movement Ysäye heightens the dark character of the dies irae by requiring the violinist to play it sul ponticello (with the bow against the bridge, creating a glassy sound) in addition to incorporating it into knotty double-stop passages. With the dies irae appearing boldly at the end of the last movement this sonata could also be seen as another of Ysäye's prophetic visions: Jacques Thibaud was killed in a plane crash shortly after another French phenomenon, violinist Ginette Neveu, suffered the same fate while at the height of her career.

While not as taxing as the sonatas of Bach and Ysäye, Thomas Benjamin's Shapes, for Violin Solo (1975) presents a different challenge for the violinist. The piece begins with a three-note figure (A-G-B flat), after which two additional figures are introduced (F sharp-F natural –D; immediately followed by C sharp – B flat). For the next five minutes these figures are shaped and placed in different registers with the markings sul tasto (on the fingerboard), sul ponticello, and con sordino (with the mute), fully exploring the instrument's sonic capabilities while demanding absolute mastery of the bow and, with the melodic figures in most cases being presented without double-stop accompaniment, impeccable intonation.


Although I did perform and hear works for solo violin during my early studies, it was not until 1996 that "the world of unaccompanied violin playing" truly opened. From 1996 until 1998 I heard five of Ysäye's six sonatas played exquisitely by fellow students in addition to works for solo violin by Ernst, Prokofieff, Milhaud, American composer Amy Scurria, Bartok and Gyorgy Kurtag. My personal experience with "lone violin works" came during this time, as I performed works by Bach, Ysäye, and Benjamin on four separate programs in two semesters, and while I struggled to play these pieces at the level surrounding me I reveled in the challenge and met all performances – both mine and those of others – with great expectation.

These notes were originally written for a performance of works for unaccompanied violin taking place in June 2006, with portions having appeared in a Strings Magazine article on the study and performance of Bach's solo violin works.

From Yixi Zhang
Posted on June 4, 2007 at 1:03 AM
How interesting! Thanks for the nice post.

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