Music of Spring

Crocus longiflorus5

Let’s celebrate the arrival of spring with a performance of Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 5 in F Major, Opus 24. Sometime after this music was published in 1801 it became know as the “Spring” sonata. Can you hear anything “springy” in the music?

As you listen, pay attention to the sense of dialogue between the violin and piano. What kind of a conversation are they having? Listen to the musical cat and mouse game that takes place in the Scherzo. The word “scherzo” translates as “joke.” I think you’ll hear the humor in this movement. A Rondo is a musical form in which a main theme keeps recurring, interspersed with short musical “adventures” into new territory.

This performance is by German violinist Anne Sophie Mutter and pianist Lambert Orkis:

  1. Allegro -begins at 1:00
  2. Adagio molto espressivo –begins at 11:45
  3. Scherzo: Allegro molto -begins at 18:04
  4. Rondo: Allegro ma non troppo –begins at 19:29

If you would like to hear a slightly different interpretation, listen to these recordings by Szeryng and Rubinstein, Oistrakh and Milstein. Is there one performance that stands out for you? If so, I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts.

Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins

Johann Sebastian Bach

Last month I recommended an exciting new recording of Bach violin concertos, just released by Anne Akiko Meyers.  Now, let’s listen to a much older performance of the Bach Double Concerto featuring two of the twentieth century’s greatest violinists, Yehudi Menuhin and David Oistrakh.

This music was written around 1730 when Bach was working in Leipzig.  Bach’s main instrument was the organ, but he was also a fine violinist and he was influenced by Vivaldi’s concertos.*

As you listen, pay attention to the way the two solo violin parts interact with each other and with the orchestra.  You’ll notice that they constantly trade off between taking the spotlight and having a supporting role.

Listen to the beginning of the first movement and see if you can keep track of the main motive as it appears in different voices, first in the second violins, then the first violins (0:15) then the lower strings (0:29) then the second violins again (0:41) and finally returning to the first violins (0:51).  This may remind you of what you heard when we listened to the Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor.

As the second movement unfolds, moving into ever changing musical landscapes, notice the repeating “heart beat” in the orchestra.  Do you get the sense that the music is searching for its ultimate goal?

Compare the second movement’s sense of musical “heart beat” to the feel of the third movement.  Are there moments here where your sense of the downbeat is dangerously and excitingly less predictable?

Concerto for Two Violins, Strings and Continuo in D Minor, BWV 1043…J.S. Bach (1685-1750)

Vivace
Largo ma non tanto
Allegro 

Now that you’ve heard the Double Concerto more or less as Bach intended, you might enjoy this comedy sketch that the legendary Jack Benny did with violinist Isaac Stern.  Also, check out this impressive jazz fiddle adaptation performed by the group, Time For Three:

*Great Masters of the Violin, Boris Schwarz (pg. 110)

The Chaconne Across 300 Years

My last post featured music constructed around a repeating bass line, or ostinato. We listened to Johann Pachelbel’s famous Canon in D as well as passacaglias by Handel and Bach.  Now, let’s return to the ostinato  with another type of musical composition that was popular in the Baroque period, the chaconne.

Like the passacaglia, the repeating bass line of the chaconne gave Baroque composers a great opportunity to write endlessly inventive variations.  Most chaconnes are built on a four note scale that descends from the tonic (the home pitch of any key) to the dominant (the fifth scale degree).  This simple four note pattern creates its own satisfying drama.  Listen to the chaconne bass line.  Can you feel the pull of the lowest note (the dominant) back to the first note (the tonic)? With each repetition of this bass line, the music moves away from “home” and then returns.

Chaconne in G Minor…Tomaso Antonio Vitali (1663-1745)

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This piece was ascribed to Vitali by the nineteenth century violinist Ferdinand David, but it is unclear who actually wrote it.  Here is a performance by the great David Oistrakh:

Chaconne from “Roland”…Jean Baptiste Lully (1632-1687)

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Suzuki violin students know Jean Baptiste Lully because of his Gavotte in Book 2. Lully was one of the most important French Baroque composers and was especially influential in developing French opera.  This chaconne comes from the Third Act of his opera, Roland.  If you like this music, you might also enjoy another chaconne Lully wrote for the opera, Phaeton.

Partita in D Minor for Solo Violin BWV 1004…Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

Ciaccona

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Bach wrote six unaccompanied sonatas and partitas for violin.  A partita is a suite, or collection of pieces.  This monumental chaconne comes at the end of the Partita in D Minor.   In a Washington Post interview, violinist Joshua Bell called this chaconne “not just one of the greatest pieces of music ever written, but one of the greatest achievements of any man in history. It’s a spiritually powerful piece, emotionally powerful, structurally perfect.”

In a letter to Clara Schumann, the composer Johannes Brahms wrote: “On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind.”

There are many great recordings of Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin. Recordings I recommend include performances by Henryk Szeryng, Hilary Hahn, Julia Fischer, Ilya Kaler, Gidon Kremer, Arthur Grumiaux and Mela Tenenbaum. Tenenbaum’s recording features a separate CD with her thoughts on the music and is worth exploring for any musician who is studying solo Bach.

Here is a performance by the legendary Russian violinist, Nathan Milstein.

Violin Concerto…John Adams (b. 1947)

II. Chaconne: Body through which the dream flows

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In 1993 American composer John Adams wrote a chaconne for the second movement of his Violin Concerto.  It’s easy to hear echoes of the past in this haunting and atmospheric music.  In what ways is this chaconne similar to its Baroque predecessors?  In what ways is it different?  What feelings does the music evoke?

Pearls (from the album, Love Deluxe)…Sade (Released in 1992)

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Interestingly, this song from the British band, Sade is built on the same descending chaconne bass line that Vitali, Lully and other Baroque composers used.