Programme Notes for MATHILDE MILWIDSKY (Violin) and ANNIE YIM

Robert Schumann (1810 – 1856) Three Romances   Opus 94                                                                                    

I: Nicht schnell II: Einfach, innig III: Nicht schnell

Robert Schumann was very much more than just a miniaturist but he did produce large numbers of freely formed, short character pieces issued in batches, sometimes with suggestive titles (‘Forest Scenes’, ’Scenes of Childhood’), sometimes merely open titles – ‘Album Leaves’ or his favoured ‘Fantasy Pieces’. His ‘Three Romances’ Opus 94 belong to 1849 and give no indication of what prompted their composition; even the playing directions (“not fast” for the outer movements, “simple, heartfelt” for the central one) give little away. They are jealously guarded by oboists as being part of the very small 19th century repertoire written for their instrument; but the composer himself sanctioned their performance by violin or flute, an offer which players have been delighted to take up. 

 Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918) Sonata in G minor                                                                                            

           I: Allegro vivo       II: Intermède – Fantasque et léger       III: Finale – Très animé

This sonata, belonging to 1917, was its composer’s last work. He was by now a very sick man; the cancer which had been lurking for several years was now unmistakable and had necessitated major surgery. To add to these personal problems, there was the dire political situation. Debussy was well aware that he had nothing physical to contribute to the defence of his beloved homeland and for the first year of hostilities even the creative urge largely deserted him. But in the summer of 1915 the juices began to flow again. “I want to work, not so much for myself but to give proof, however small it may be, that even if there were thirty million Germans, French thought will not be destroyed”. As well as producing two major piano works, he also conceived the idea of six sonatas for different combinations of instruments, each bearing on the title page below the composer’s name, the words ‘Musicien Français’. Sadly he was only able to complete the first three: one for cello and piano, one for flute, viola and harp and tonight’s work. The original plan was for a fourth sonata for the unlikely combination of oboe, horn and harpsichord, a fifth for trumpet, clarinet, bassoon and piano and then the entire cast of the other five (with the addition of a double bass) assembled for sonata number six. What a mind-boggling musical ‘might-have-been’!

The violin sonata is in three quite brief movements in which the composer seems to be looking back over his creative life and recalling musical influences which had been important to him. There is Spanish folk music, there is Stravinsky, there are even direct allusions to earlier works of his own. But, ill and depressed as he was, the artist in Debussy manages to weld what could seem a disparate rag bag into a coherent and eloquent whole. 

  Lili Boulanger (1893 – 1918) Deux Morceaux: Nocturne et Cortège  

1918 also saw the death of a young French composer who had already showed great accomplishment but promised so much more. Lili Boulanger (sister of the more famous Nadia, doyenne of French composition teachers, loved and feared in equal measures by a large number of European and American students) suffered poor health almost from birth. Her period of study at the Paris Conservatoire was crowned by the award of the highly coveted Prix de Rome composition prize in 1912 and in her remaining six years she produced a varied and full output ranging from large scale choral and orchestral works to smaller vocal and instrumental pieces. The Deux Morceaux, a long phrased, richly harmonised song and a perky and colourful jeu d’ésprit, were written in 1911 and 1914 respectively.

Eugène Ysaye (1858 – 1931) Violin Sonata No.3 in D minor                                                                            

          Lento molto sostenuto – allegro in tempo giusto e con bravura

Two of the great violin virtuosi of the early 20th century had secondary careers as composers; but while the Viennese/American Fritz Kreisler was known for his operettas and dainty trifles in olde worlde style, the Belgian  Eugène Ysaye produced more serious fare: two operas, concertos, chamber music and, of course, much violin music, a surprising amount of which is unaccompanied.  Working largely in his native country and in France, Ysaye was one of the most admired players of his generation; to be the dedicatee of both the César Franck Sonata and the Debussy String Quartet says something for his reputation. (The former work was a wedding present and played, with the ink scarcely dry, by the bridegroom at his own wedding breakfast!) 

As well as being a dedicatee, Ysaye was a noted dedicater; each of the six solo violin sonatas composed in 1923 was dedicated to a contemporary player, No.3 to the Romanian Georges Enescu. The work is in one continuous movement but falling into two sections. The structure is very free – Ysaye admitted to “having let my imagination wander at will”. He was very insistent that these works should not be regarded in any way as technical exercises; they should be played by “a thinker, a poet and a human being having known hope, love, passion and despair” Clearly head and brain are required as well as nimble fingers and a strong forearm.

Ludwig Van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) Sonata No. 10     Opus 96                                                                                  

    I: Allegro moderato    II: Adagio espressivo    III: Scherzo – Allegro    IV: Poco allegretto

The first nine of Beethoven’s violin sonatas were composed in the space of about six years; but there then elapsed nine years before the tenth (and last) appeared. Opus 96 was written in 1812, the period of the Seventh and Eighth Symphonies, and is dedicated to the composer’s favourite (and perhaps most gifted) pupil, the Archduke Rudolph who gave the first performance with the French violinist Pierre Rode. Beethoven had had Rode in mind when composing the work; unlike many a touring virtuoso, the Frenchman was noted for the restrained manner of his playing. Accordingly he largely avoids the exuberance and love of dramatic surprise that had characterised his previous works in this form. It is only really the terse, minor key scherzo that displays characteristic rhythmic energy. The remainder of the work, though far from uninteresting, unfolds in a comparatively relaxed manner. Those of a technical turn of thought might be interested in how much time this sonata in G major spends in E flat major; this is the key of the slow movement, the trio of the scherzo and is even alluded to at the end of the finale. 

Copyright: Richard Hall