performed by Augustin Dumay and Maria João Pires, or below by Julia Fischer and Milana Chernyavska
(cover image by Ravi Roshan)
Today we discuss the first (and I think only) work of this little stretch of sonatas that isn’t a “no. 1” or solitary work in its form from the composer. This sonata is the third and last of Grieg’s output for the violin, and thus the most mature. The first two are much earlier works, on which the composer spent far less time. That’s not to belittle them, but the third took a few months to compose, and came a few years after the cello sonata we discussed earlier in the week. It was premiered on December 10, 1887 at the Leipzig Gewandhaus with the composer as pianist and Adolph Brodsky as soloist.
It is certainly the most famous of the three sonatas, as well as being one of the composer’s favorite of his output. Henry Theophilus Finck also claims it is his last work to use sonata form, perhaps excepting the unfinished second string quartet.
Much like the presentation of the cello sonata, we begin with a stormy first theme in a minor key, which, again, has clear emotional import. Not long thereafter, though, we hear something quite related, in the key of G major, moving very much in the direction of our second subject, which eventually arrives in the expected E flat major. It’s marked cantabile and is expressive and warm. If nothing else, credit certainly must be given to Grieg for being an apt writer of melody.
The emotional intensity of his themes and the way he weaves them around and into one another is compelling, and quite easy to follow. It may seem contradictory that something seems so related and yet so different, but that balance and conflict is part of what moves this movement forward. Take it all in. The Wikipedia article on this piece shows snippets of each theme, and that may help you realize some of the similarity.
The second movement begins with piano, again sounding like something from a music box in its simple beauty, and we can again admire the composer’s talent for writing beautiful, soul-stirring melodies. It’s absolutely, completely carefree, like the freshest Norwegian air blowing in through a window on a quiet sunny day. But what you might notice, with the first movement still on your palate, is the strong similarity to the content of the first movement. The central dance-like passage in the tonic minor is described by Martin Anderson for Hyperion as “brooding” but I don’t quite hear it that way. Wiki describes it as playful. A minor-key passage doesn’t always have to be malevolent or dark. It provides contrast, and it’s certainly folksy in an almost proto-Bartók way. It leaves this central slow movement feeling almost like an inverted scherzo, with the lively bit as the trio instead of the other way around. The violin sings us out on a stratospheric, ethereal high note.
The finale uses a sort of truncated sonata form, again juxtaposing two major thematic ideas, but with no real development section. It opens with an almost impressionistic, Ravel-like undulation on the piano. The second, lyrical theme of this movement isn’t the melodic, carefree sunshine we’ve heard elsewhere from Grieg. It’s more pensive, perhaps the most striking, moving thing in this entire work, what stops me in my tracks about this work, gives me pause, but we can hear the immediate return of the first theme with that piano flourish, about halfway through the movement, no development.
In the world of C minor, Beethoven’s territory, we may think everything is tragic, especially considering the way the first movement ended. We move back and forth in these two key areas, and even the second theme is quite impassioned upon its restatement, but ultimately where do we end up? There’s a coda that takes our more antagonistic statement and brings us around to finish in C major, perhaps really true to Beethoven’s ad astra per aspera use of that key.
The one thing I can’t say I see or hear or appreciate in this sonata is the use of any Norwegian folk music. I just don’t know any Norwegian folk music. For sure there are passages in the finale and the central passage of the second movement that do suggest a sort of proto-Bartók, as I said, a rustic flavor. Maybe it’s odd to liken those two composers, but Grieg was certainly very nationalistic, just not the modern composer Bartók was, obviously. But perhaps if we thought of him a little bit more as such, he’d have a little more respect, rather than just being a melodic craftsman.
While this piece isn’t one of my favorites, it’s well constructed and has some showy moments, some truly expressive passages, and we’ve seen this week that Grieg’s music may not contain the motivic complexity or whatever of some of his later counterparts, but all his music, as with his quartet, had the purpose of expression, an urgency to communicate, and in that regard, he’s clearly very effective.
That’s all we’re going to see from Grieg for quite some time, I’m sure, but after a few years of neglect on the blog, he did deserve some attention. We’ll see him eventually, but for now, we’re jumping ahead a few more decades than I remember planning for, up into the 20th century, to visit another composer we haven’t seen in a number of years, so stay tuned, and thank you for reading.