Program Notes by Aaron Grad
Amid the dark days of 1802, when he was coming to grips with his deafness, Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) composed a set three violin sonatas and published them together the next year as his Opus 30. The title page advertised “Three Sonatas for the Pianoforte with Violin Accompaniment,” in deference to the old custom of treating the violin part as non-essential decoration in works designed for easy home use by amateurs, but this was the phase when Beethoven began to challenge all such niceties. These violin sonatas were some of the first truly equal duets in the genre, and they demanded sincere musicianship from both partners.
Beethoven was on the cusp of what we now call his “middle period,” when he learned to distill music down to its essence, and then wring every drop of meaning out of the most basic ingredients. When those ingredients were cheerful themes set in the bright home key of G-major, as in the Violin Sonata No. 8 (Op. 30, No. 3), the result was unfettered joy, starting with an opening flourish that has been likened to the popping of a cork, prompting some to dub this the “Champagne” Sonata. Fashioning the slow movement after the classic minuet dance lends it a gracefulness and sense of steady motion, and the finale follows with rustic drones and crunching grace-notes that evoke high spirits and outdoor revelry in the spirit of Haydn, Beethoven’s onetime teacher turned rival.
Thanks to an introduction from his former teacher, Camille Saint-Saëns, Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) became a regular guest in the Paris salon of the opera singer Pauline Viardot. Fauré dedicated his Violin Sonata No. 1 to Pauline’s son, the violinist Paul Viardot, who joined Fauré for the first performance of the work on January 27, 1877.
Those years that Fauré spent in the company of the many singers who frequented the Viardot salon reinforced the tuneful nature of his composing. The Violin Sonata No. 1 in A Major is unfailingly melodic, with the foreground duties shared equitably between the two partners, starting in the first movement that sets aside the typical sonata-form structure. A hypnotic pulse in 9/8 meter propels the sublime Andante, and the bouncy Scherzo takes a break from its dry humor for a contrasting section with music marked “expressive” and “sweet.” The finale at first masks its intense pace with a delicate opening melody and sparse piano chords only on the off-beats. The movement soon turns rhapsodic, and by the end the violin has a chance to indulge in some flashy perpetual motion as it bids adieu to this song-filled sonata.
Franz Schubert (1797-1828), in his tragically short life, never achieved anything close to the public platform he deserved. If he had, perhaps we would today be enjoying Schubert operas (his greatest unfulfilled ambition), or more symphonies (none of which were performed publicly in his lifetime). Instead Schubert created most of his music for his private circle of friends and patrons, like the Fantasy in C Major that he composed in December of 1827 for a private concert the next month. The genre of the Fantasy gave a composer license to explore themes in a free-ranging structure, and the format suited Schubert exceptionally well, in seen in beloved works for piano (solo and four-hands) and this score for violin and piano.
After setting the mood with a long-lined melody set over trembling piano accompaniment, the Fantasy veers to the related minor key for a brisk, flamboyant Allegretto. The core of the work is the Andantino section, featuring variations on the much-loved melody of Sei mir gegrüsst, Schubert’s 1822 song on a poem by Friedrich Rückert. After a brief recall of the opening music, the final section takes off in a lively tempo, capped with one last taste of the song melody and a glitzy coda at an accelerated pulse.
© 2021 Aaron Grad.
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