Various Violin Virtuosity: A wrap-up

There isn’t much to say, maybe, about August’s line-up. There was quite a variety of influences peppered throughout the four composers featured this month, from Ravel’s earliest work and influence from Debussy to his later fascination with jazz and then gypsy folk music. Bartok picked up where that left off, giving us the first of his string quartets and showing a progression of how he balanced and processed his own influences and inspirations all the way through to his ‘Goodbye Europe’ violin concerto.

From there we moved on to something more nostalgic, yet with tinges of a struggle from a different part of the world, with Shostakovich’s first two string quartets. Although brighter and not as heavy in mood, the second still came from a troubled time in human history, which could be said of most of the composer’s career, as is seen by the concerto and the sonata.

It seemed about time, then, to take on something a little lighter, so we wrapped up our series with Philip Glass, making his first appearance on the blog with two of his string quartets, followed by the first violin concerto and (currently sole) violin sonata. These four works, while perhaps not the focal points of his career, do pluck a few pages out of pertinent points in his output. We’ll get around to Einstein and 12 Parts soon enough.

So that being said, there wasn’t a whole lot in common with those works. Remember the criteria from earlier in the month? All violin (string quartet, sonata, concerto [okay, I took some liberties with Ravel]), no German natives (lots of German music this year), and no one from the same country, so we had a Frenchman, a Hungarian, a Russian, and an American.

That aside, there were a few themes running through this month’s stuff that were interesting. For one, there was Jelly d’Arányi, for whom works by Ravel and Bartok were commissioned and premiered. There was the exploration of certain folk or ethnic idioms, like jazz, gypsy music, and other less specific cultural stuff in favor of a folk-like expression. There was also political strife, as seen by Bartok’s concerto and most of Shostakovich’s works. Lastly was Glass, a bit of an outsider as far as those themes are concerned, and much more the modern musician. He’d have been a young boy when Bartok passed, and well into his career when Shostakovich did, but I can’t imagine they’d have crossed paths much, if at all.

Other considerations on this list (now that I’ve thrown away those sticky notes…) were Carl Nielsen and Prokofiev, the two strongest contenders for inclusion. William Walton was another who had works in all three categories to contribute. Other considered composers were Busoni, Dvorak, Saint-Saens, Piston, Vaughan Williams, and George Enescu, whose violin concerto is unfinished. There’s enough there (among the German speaking options, who composed tons of this stuff: Mozart, Brahms, Beethoven, Reger, Strauss) to have another pass or three at a little series like this. If that ends up being the case, we could do parts 2 and 3… or more.

But the real takeaway for me was this: chamber music is important. Concertos aren’t chamber music, I know, and I’ve given plenty of attention lately to string quartets, but it was the sonatas that struck me… I hadn’t really given much attention to violin sonatas, to be honest, or really any non-piano sonatas. I don’t really know why… Cello, violin, viola, anything with piano accompaniment I haven’t really paid much attention to, as you can plainly see if you’ve been reading the blog for any length of time. And that has to change.

I mean, I own the music. I have all the violin sonatas from Mozart (the mature ones), Beethoven, Brahms, Martinu, Bach (solo stuff), Schubert, Schnittke, Stravinsky, Sessions, Debussy, Dag Wiren, Medtner, and others. There’s still plenty I don’t have, but I just haven’t given them a ton of time. Getting familiar with these works was far more engaging than I’d expected (had I expected them to be boring?), and the thing that I say about quartets is true of sonatas: it’s a chance to get to know the composer on a more personal level. The fluff and pomp and bigness and formality of the symphony is stripped away, there’s nowhere to hide. You’re not in a big noisy room a few seats away from the composer at a bar; you’re in a booth off in another room, staring him right in the eyes and getting to know him. It’s a different experience, and the sonatas were the clear standout for this little series, and the way the composer treats the violin in a smaller setting might also inform the approach to the concerto from the same hand.

In any case, I enjoyed that. It was music from some other places in the world, from some new names (one brand new) and we stepped away from the symphony for a spell, but stay tuned, because September is just around the corner, and we’ll be saddling up to some new symphonies, so stick around for those!

(There’s a special post coming up this week to look out for, too, a revisit in light of a recent passing, so please be on the lookout for that.)

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