Sonatina No.1 in D major Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828)
I: Allegro molto II: Andante III: Allegro vivace
1816, the year in which Schubert’s three violin sonatas were composed, marks something of a turning point in his career. His school days having ended three years earlier, he had qualified as a primary school teacher and taught for a while in his father’s school; but in 1816, having failed to obtain a post as a school music teacher, he resolved to give up teaching altogether, move from the suburbs to the centre of Vienna and try his chances in the rich musical life the city offered. He had no more than average skills as a performer so it was by composition that he sought to make his living. If fluency as a composer was the yardstick for this to succeed, then this apparently reckless scheme seemed quite feasible. He already had a huge amount of music to his credit; in the previous year alone he had produced two symphonies, four operas, two masses, a string quartet, much piano music and about one hundred and fifty songs not a note of which was published or given professional performance.
But he was not entirely unknown in professional musical circles; his years in the Imperial Chapel choir had brought him to the attention of the all-powerful Kapellmeister Antonio Salieri who in 1816 was celebrating fifty years since his arrival in Vienna. Schubert was invited to write a cantata to celebrate this event – it was his first paid commission. The performance was successful and was well reviewed, but sadly the work has not survived. It was by his songs that he stood best chance of earning recognition although it was several years before any of these appeared in print or were given fully professional performance. Where something of his gifts was recognised was within the circle of friends, amongst whom were to be found several professional singers, poets, actors and gifted amateur performers; what have subsequently become known as Schubertiads were regularly held, domestic gatherings where the young composer was encouraged to try out his latest works in a sympathetic environment. It will surely have been occasions such as this where the violin sonatinas were first heard, music of instant appeal plumbing no great depth of emotion yet beautifully crafted and as enjoyable to play as to listen to.
Sonata for Solo Violin Sergey Prokofiev (1891 – 1953)
I: Moderato II: Andante dolce – theme and variations III: Allegro precipitato – con brio
There are many different aspects to Prokofiev’s musical personality: the brazenly iconoclastic works of his early twenties, the poised neo-classicism of the Classical Symphony, the keen satire of ‘The Love of Three Oranges’, the social realism of ‘The Ode to the End of the War’, the unashamed nationalism of ‘Ivan the Terrible’ the gentle wit of ‘Peter and the Wolf’. Running through them all is a technical brilliance, a strong melodic gift and a very personal approach to harmony. Despite the different aspects outlined above, his was a distinctive voice in twentieth century music.
His Sonata for Solo Violin has a curious history. It was composed in 1947 as a pedagogical work intended for mass performance by the violin ‘choirs’ popular in Soviet Russia at the time. Ensembles of this type have never enjoyed much popularity in the west where the sonata has been seen rather as a useful addition to the unaccompanied solo violin repertoire. The composing method is quite straightforward and the musical language appealing; by this time Prokofiev’s health was starting to fail – the urge to compose was still strong but the energy to explore new territory had largely fallen away.
Meditation from ‘Thaïs’ Jules Massenet (1842 – 1912)
The opera Thaïs’ was composed in 1894 and offers a typically convoluted plot concerned with the love of a strictly ascetic monk and a beautiful courtesan (the historical Thaïs may have numbered Alexander the Great amongst her numerous of lovers). The music is in Massenet’s richest and most sensuous vein. The famous meditation comes between the two scenes in act two as Thaïs is considering her reaction to the monk’s advances. The original scoring calls for an off-stage chorus and eight solo singers seated amongst the orchestra; tonight we will hear the more usual, less extravagant version.
Sonata for Violin and Piano Opus 82 Edward Elgar (1857 – 1934)
I: Allegro II: Romance – andante III: Allegro non troppo
The violin was Elgar’s principal instrument. His father played at a sufficient standard to be invited to join the orchestra when the Three Choirs Festival visited Worcester triennially and at the age of seven young Edward began violin lessons. By the age of eighteen he was joining his father amongst the second violins in the Worcester Philharmonic Society and within four years was the leader of the orchestra. He had hoped to be able to become a student at the Leipzig Conservatoire with the violin as principal study but family funds were insufficient for such a venture; he had to make do with a short series of lessons with a leading London violinist who detected great promise in the young man and begged him to enrol for a full course. But on hearing the great Wilhelmj play, Elgar decided that he would never reach the standard required for a solo career and so abandoned serious study of the violin. But the instrument remained for many years the principal source of his income; he earned a little from playing in ad hoc orchestras in the West Midlands, but his main earnings came from teaching the violin, an occupation he very much disliked and was not at all good at.
As composition began to take more and more of his time and energy, the violin was the focus of a great many of the works he produced. Short solo pieces such as ‘Chanson de Matin’ and ‘Salut d’Amour’ helped spread knowledge of his works, a violin sonata of 1887 was allocated an opus number but then destroyed as was a full concerto three years later. It was two decades after this that the great concerto which has an imperishable position in the international repertoire was written, a work in which, along with the Second Symphony and ‘The Music Makers’, Elgar opined that he had “written out his soul”.
The Great War changed so much in music as in all other activity and affected Elgar as much as anyone. Not only was the whole machinery of musical life thrown out of gear but emotionally and spiritually a personality as fragile as Elgar’s was devastated. No longer able to afford the upkeep of the opulent Hampstead mansion he had bought at the apex of his career, he retired to a small cottage deep in the West Sussex countryside and there produced the four works showing him still at the height of his powers but working on a smaller scale: the cello concerto, the string quartet, the piano quintet and the violin sonata. His ever-attentive wife Alice, hearing this music gradually emerging from the composer’s study, felt that this “should be in a war symphony”, and indeed they do reflect the mood of the times; the war was nearing its end but something of the irreparable damage which it had caused was being understood. These works are if anything a war chamber symphony, small in scale but profound in emotion.
© 2022 Richard Hall