Mozart, Violin Sonata in B-flat Major, K. 454

Wolfgang A. Mozart (1756-1791) wrote his Violin Sonata in B-flat Major for Regina Strinasacchi, a young violin virtuosa, who met him in Vienna while touring Italy, France and Germany. Mozart wrote to his father on April 26, 1784 that he was composing the sonata, which he and Strinasacchi would play together in concert for Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II several days later. In his haste to get the work ready in time, Mozart had time to copy only the violin part. His wife later related the story that he performed the premiere from memory, a blank piece of music manuscript paper on the piano before him.

The B-flat Violin Sonata opens with an unusually majestic and lofty Largo introduction. The main body of the movement (Allegro) is characterized by an alternation of violin and piano exposing and developing a rich array of melodic themes. The tonal balance of this sonata form is exemplary of classic proportions.

The Andante, which has been called “more an Adagio than an Andante,” is a portrait of sincerity packaged in fluttering style galant. The sunshine of its outer sections is set off by the dark explorations of its minor-mode central section.

The bright rondo finale offers the listener new surprises at every turn. Each recurrence of the main theme is fresh, and the episodes all contain unexpected delights. Throughout there is a blend of warmth and brilliance, of delicacy and jubilation.

Bach, Chaconne from the Violin Partita No. 2 in D Minor

J.S. Bach (1685-1750) spent the years 1717-1723 in the service of the Duke of Anhalt-Cöthen. This appointment was different from all others in his lifetime, since it involved no sacred music whatsoever. Bach’s job was strictly music director to the court: leading the orchestra, playing the harpsichord, and taking charge of the chamber music. The Cöthen period therefore became his richest in the production of music of these types. Nearly unique in the literature are his collections of music for unaccompanied string instruments. For cello he composed a set of six suites, and for violin he also composed six works: three sonatas and three partitas.

Partita was an Italian word used among German musicians to mean dance suite. The D Minor Partita concludes uniquely with a lengthy Chaconne that could be considered a separate composition, and has been treated that way in transcriptions for the guitar.

The Chaconne is one of Bach’s monumental architectural (or “architectonic,” as Albert Schweitzer put it) variation masterpieces. It is on a par with the Passacaglia and Fugue for organ and the “Goldberg” Variations for keyboard. Based on a four-measure harmonic ground, the Chaconne is a set of 63 variations poured into three main sections. The first 32 variations in D minor lead to a middle section comprising 19 variations in the major mode, and Bach concludes with 12 variations, again in D minor. Each section builds from a simple harmonic presentation to a rhythmic state of near-frenzy. In the forward press, Bach often chains together two or more variations. He handles the instrument frequently in such a way as to suggest a bass line under the melodic or figural flow. At the end, the original theme returns unadorned, and the final variation provides a brief coda.

J.S. Bach (1685-1750)

Cosima Liszt von Bülow in 1858

Franck, Violin Sonata in A Major

There is a group of late works by César Franck (1822-1890) that completely transcends his earlier efforts. They include such music as the D Minor Symphony, the Symphonic Variations, the String Quartet, the Piano Quintet, and the Violin Sonata. Among these, biographer Laurence Davies suggests that “quite possibly the Violin Sonata is Franck’s greatest work.” Whether you agree or not, the sonata is surely among his most striking achievements and one that stirred considerable interest right from the beginning. There is even a smattering of love interest connected with the work, beginning with the conjecture that Franck had intended to write it for Cosima Liszt von Bülow in 1858. However, he presented the sonata to renowned violinist Eugene Ysaÿe as a wedding gift in September 1886, and Ysaÿe performed the piece at the marriage celebration.

Ysaÿe and Mme. Bordes-Pène performed the public premiere in Brussels in December 1886 with Franck in the audience. During its preparation, Ysaÿe played the first movement much faster than Franck had originally indicated, but the composer liked it so much that he re-designated the movement as an Allegretto. The rocking main theme dominates. Pastoral in character, the first movement has an introductory function.

Beginning like a piano toccata, the second movement then becomes rhapsodic with the entry of the violin. In contrast with the serenity of the first movement, the fiery second develops two themes in a constant barrage of energy interrupted only by two tentatively slower passages. The violin phrases so prominent in the opening pages of the third movement hark back to the Sonatas and Partitas for unaccompanied violin by J.S. Bach, for whose music Franck had the deepest reverence. Franck’s essay is a recitative that gradually becomes a fantasy. Little by little, the rhythmic organization grows stricter until the final section, in which a constant triplet motion in the piano supports a long-breathed violin cantilena.

Again, Franck pays homage to Bach in the final movement, which opens with a 36-measure strict canon between the piano (playing in octaves) and the violin. Perceptive listeners will hear a connection between the theme used here and the first movement’s main idea. The secondary theme in

the movement’s rondo form has been carried over from the “fantasy” that climaxed the preceding movement. But the true wonder is that each time the main theme returns, its canonic voices are configured slightly differently: Now the violin leads the piano’s right hand; now the canon starts in the piano’s left, leading the violin. The final apotheosis of the theme is similar to the movement’s opening, except that the positions are reversed with the violin leading the piano’s octaves. Franck knows that this cannot be topped, and he brings his sonata to a breathless finish with the briefest coda.

Epilogue . . .

“Point Counterpoint” could be a title for this concert program. The prominent place for J.S. Bach is certainly appropriate. Less well known is Mozart’s childhood mastery of advanced techniques in counterpoint, yet in the finale to his “Jupiter” (final) Symphony that transcendental mastery is beautifully demonstrated.

Cesar Franck lived daily with counterpoint, because he was an organist at a time when the Complete Works of Bach were being published, and the world could see (and hear) firsthand the breadth and depth of Bach’s organ fugues and other contrapuntal music.

Yet, as heady and complex as counterpoint may have been for these composers, their works were never just “eye music” to be studied intellectually but never taken to heart. No, heart was always at the center of their individual creativity. In this light, we know that counterpoint was (and is) just one of the important means to the artistic ends of the greatest musical masters.

Program Notes by Dr. Michael Fink
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