March 14th, 2019 at 1:30 pm
Rachel Lee Priday, violin; David Kaplan, piano
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827)
Sonata No. 5 in F Major, Op. 24 “Spring”
– Adagio molto espressivo
– Scherzo: Allegro molto
– Rondo: Allegro ma non troppo
Leos Janacek (1854 – 1928)
Sonata for Violin and Piano
– Con moto
Richard Strauss (1864 – 1949)
Sonata in E-Flat Major, Op. 18
– Allegro ma non troppo
– Improvisation: Andante cantabile
– Finale: Andante – Allegro
Ludwig van Beethoven: Sonata No. 5 in F Major, Op. 24 “Spring”
In the late 18th century the concept of “violin sonata” (referring to a work for violin and piano) did not exist. Haydn and Mozart both wrote sonatas for keyboard and violin, but the violin part was simply a subservient accompaniment to the keyboard. Then Mozart in 1778 produced a collection which he called “Clavier duetti mit violin.” An alert contemporary critic noted that these pieces were “abounding in new musical thought and hints of the composer’s genius, very brilliant … the accompanying violin is all the while so artfully intertwined with the keyboard part that both instruments remain constantly in the forefront so that the sonatas require a violin and keyboard player of equal accomplishment.” And thus was born the modern violin/piano sonata (or just, “violin sonata”). Beethoven built on this fundamental change, though he still called his works “Sonatas pour le Piano-Forte avec un violon.” But the two performers were now clearly equal partners.
The “Spring” Sonata (written in 1800-01, the apt nickname not by the composer) is dedicated to one of Beethoven’s most loyal patrons, Count Moritz von Fries, proprietor of a Viennese bank, avid art collector, and treasurer to the imperial court. Seven years younger than Beethoven, Count Fries was a highly cultured and educated man. He traveled extensively, once meeting Goethe in Italy. Fries’ palace in Vienna was designed by one of the architects of Schönbrunn, the Emperor’s summer residence. The Count’s home featured an elegant concert theater. It was there that in April of 1800 Fries invited Beethoven and the visiting German virtuoso and composer Daniel Steibelt to take part in a piano-playing contest, a bizarre but not uncommon entertainment of the time. Beethoven won, in a unanimous decision.
Beethoven’s String Quintet Op. 29 and his Symphony No. 7 were also dedicated to the Count, in addition to both the “Spring” Sonata and its predecessor, Op. 23. Beethoven continued to receive a dependably regular stipend from Fries for many years, until bankruptcy befell him in 1825 as a result of the Napoleonic upheavals.
Heads up: The third movement “Scherzo” of the “Spring” Sonata reveals Beethoven’s sense of humor at its wickedest. The “joke” (literal meaning of the word “scherzo”) is the composer’s writing of the violin part so that it starts and remains doggedly just one beat behind the piano part, sounding like a mistake. Beethoven appreciated, though, that brevity is indeed the soul of wit: the entire movement clocks in at barely one minute!
Leos Janacek: Sonata for Violin and Piano
Born just thirteen years after Dvorak and living through an era of late 19th-century romanticism, Janacek clearly belongs to a later age. Though known today mostly for his larger works, mainly operas, the composer is belatedly receiving recognition for a small body of important chamber music, including this sonata.
Like so many of his Eastern European contemporaries, Janacek became devoted to exploring “ethnomusicology.” He was particularly interested not only in traditional folk music but also in actual speech and rhythm patterns of native dialects in and around Moravia, where he was born and lived most of his life. His music reflects, as one critic describes it, “this raw blunt and brutal intensity [of his native music and language], suddenly shifting from one emotion to the extreme opposite without warning or preparation.” The abrupt changes of mood can be both an inspiration and a challenge to listeners.
The Sonata was started at the outbreak of World War I in 1914, and reflects the composer’s deep involvement with the escalation of hostilities. Janacek held passionate sympathies toward both Russia and Serbia, and when Germany declared war on Russia on August 1, 1914, he somberly noted the date in the manuscript of the Sonata. Janacek remarked “I could just about hear the sound of the steel clashing in my troubled head …” The work was provisionally completed in 1915, and he offered the violinist Jaroslav Kocian the opportunity to perform the premiere in Prague. Kocian declined, expressing his concerns about the Sonata’s playability.
Janacek took the criticism seriously. A year later, in 1916, he set about a major revision of the piece, including much rewriting and seemingly endless tinkering with the removal, subsequent replacement, and rearrangement of the order of the movements. The only section to escape his drastic rethinking was the Ballada, something of an island of calm (and beautiful lyricism) in the midst of turmoil. It had been published as a separate work in 1915, possibly a survivor of one of the two much earlier (1880) violin/piano sonatas by Janacek, now lost.
The premiere, with different players, finally took place in 1922 in Brno, Janacek’s Moravian home town. He had lived there from the age of eleven, when his parents enrolled him as a ward of the Abbey of St. Thomas and where he had excelled in choral singing, organ, and piano. Following studies in Prague, Leipzig, and Vienna, Janacek returned to Brno and settled there, founding and directing an organ school which became the Brno Conservatory.
Richard Strauss: Sonata in E-Flat Major, Op. 18
Franz Strauss, the father of Richard, was by all accounts an astounding musician, the revered leader of the horn section of the Bavarian Court Orchestra in Munich. It is not by accident that so much of his son’s music contains glorious virtuoso passages for the horn. But Franz was intractably conservative in his musical taste. He considered Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven the holy trinity—but Beethoven only up until the last movement of his Seventh Symphony, after which his compositions were no longer “pure,” and, Franz pronounced, “one could scent in them the mephistophelian Richard Wagner,” whose music he loathed. (In the Court Orchestra Franz was regularly obliged to perform Wagner works, and he famously had heated, vitriolic verbal exchanges with both Wagner and the conductor Hans von Bülow. But he prided himself on playing Wagner’s difficult music impeccably.) In Franz’ mind, Schumann was good only up to Op. 20, and Mendelssohn barely passed muster. So Richard, taught by his parents without benefit of attending a conservatory or music school, grew up hearing a very limited sampling of composers, and no contemporary music of any kind.
He was still a teenager when he attended the rehearsals and performances in Berlin of Brahms’ Symphony No. 3. His first reaction, in a letter to his parents, was quite negative, perhaps a result of his unusual upbringing or perhaps just an attempt to please his father. But the boy’s opinion soon changed. Brahms was one of the last major composers in the late 19th century to continue to explore the possibilities of traditional chamber music forms. Strauss was soon intrigued and then hooked by the genre. His Sonata Op. 18 (1887-88) is the last in a series of chamber works he wrote in the 1880s, many of which clearly show the influence of Brahms.
Op. 18 is in many ways a kind of hybrid work, looking back to the romantic tradition of Brahms and Schumann, and looking ahead to Strauss’s immensely innovative tone poems, and the operas to come. He was only 24, and at the same time he was writing Op. 18 he was starting Don Juan. It is perhaps worth noting that this was also the time that he was falling in love with Pauline de Ahna, the soprano he would later wed and with whom he would enjoy a happily turbulent 52-year marriage.
Some listeners have found the Sonata’s duality of styles jarring, and find it difficult to classify the work as chamber music. Strauss biographer Norman Del Mar observes that “the piano part resembles nothing so strongly as a Liszt piano concerto, while the violin line … rather suggests a full body of strings.” Nonetheless, the Sonata, with all its exuberance and youthful passion, has become increasingly accepted in the repertoire. Strauss himself was clearly fond of Op. 18, requesting that it be performed in Munich on his 85th birthday (June 11, 1949), just three months before he died.