Benjamin Beilman and Orion Weiss
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart 1756-1791
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Violin Sonata in A major, K. 526

Brought up under the iron hand of his father Leopold, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart became an accomplished violinist, but in one of his acts of rebellion against his father, he let his violin-playing slide in his later years.

Wolfgang, nevertheless, continued to write works for the violin throughout his career, probably performing many of the earlier ones himself. We owe to Mozart and his older contemporary and teacher, Franz Joseph Haydn, the development of the ensemble sonatas for piano and one or more other instruments, particularly the violin. Haydn’s great contribution to chamber music was to balance and equalize ensembles of more than two instruments – trios and particularly the string quartet. After working with Haydn, Mozart nourished and promoted the violin as an equal partner with the piano. In his early sonatas, in the Classical duo sonata tradition, the piano is the dominant instrument with the violin as the accompanying, or obbligato sidekick. Yet, although the A-major Sonata, K. 526 is a relatively late work and the two instruments share the limelight more equally, Mozart continued to give it the title “Sonata for Piano and Violin.”

Mozart completed the Sonata, on August 27, 1787, but we don’t know whether he composed it on commission, or when and where the premiere took place. The Sonata is a memorial to Carl Friedrich Abel (1723-1787), whom the eight-year-old Mozart had met during his visit to England. Abel was a composer and bass viol player who was born in Germany but spent most of his life in London. A member of a famous family of musicians and composers, he was a colleague J. S. Bach’s youngest son, Johann Christian, also a London transplant. The Presto finale of the Sonata is based on a theme from Abel’s Sonata for harpsichord, violin (or flute) and cello, Op. V, No. 5. One would have liked to have been a fly on the wall during the meeting of the scions of these three musical dynasties: the Abels, the Bachs and the Mozarts.

Despite its high Koechel number, this is not a work of great depth and may have been intended for domestic music making. It begins with a standard sonata-allegro movement, which is somewhat unusual in its rapid triple meter. Example 1 The bridge to the second theme Example 2 is the showcase for the technical abilities of the original violinist (Mozart himself?).

Like many of Mozart’s instrumental works, the second movement is the emotional heart of the piece. A modified sonata form, the first theme wanders about harmonically; Example 3 the second theme in the minor is more intense. Example 4 There is a short development.

It’s not easy to decide how, or even whether, Mozart used Abel’s sonata as a model in the highly syncopated, contrapuntal rondo finale. Example 5 The episodes, thankfully, straighten out matters in order to concentrate on more technically challenging playing. Example 6
Frederic Rzewski b. 1938
Frederic Rzewski
b. 1938
Frederic Rzewski
Demons for Violin and Piano

American composer and pianist Frederic Rzewski is a graduate of Harvard and Princeton, who studied with Walter Piston, Randall Thompson, Roger Sessions and Milton Babbitt. In the 1960s, he spent time in Italy where he co-founded an acoustic/electronic group which ran some of the early experiments with synthesizers. He taught for 26 years at the conservatory in Liège, Belgium.

Although not a household name, Rzewski is a prolific composer, especially of piano music. As pianist, he performs mostly his own compositions and those of other contemporary composers. His political and social consciousness is reflected in many of his compositions, the most notable being The People United Will Never be Divided!, composed in 1975, a series of 36 variations for piano on a Chilean popular song, composed during the Allende era. He intended it as a “companion piece” to Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations.

Rzewski composed Demons in 2017 for Benjamin Beilman and Orion Weiss, dedicating it to social activist Angela Davis. In notes printed in the score, he writes:
“In early November 2016, I had the honor to assist at a spectacular performance of my composition Coming Together of 1972 at the San Francisco Conservatory, with Angela Davis as the speaking soloist, a few days before the presidential elections. There was a public discussion that followed. Davis seemed to know the results already. She said that, if the Left had done its job, the present situation would not have arisen.

“These and similar ideas were all going through my head as I was writing Demons a few months later. I am not religious, and don’t know much about devils and such, but as an artist I cannot help feeling sensitive to whatever it is that awakens these ideas in humans, causing them to go crazy.

“My piece is in four movements, and so is a kind of sonata. There are periodic references to two songs throughout the piece: Iroes (Heroes), made popular in the 1990s by the singer Maria Dimitriadis, and a song that became known during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s (notably as performed by Barbara Dane), Freedom Is a Constant Struggle, which also provided the title for the recent book of Angela Davis.”
While not exactly program music, it is not too much of a stretch to interpret the opening and closing of this sonata as a musical rendition of the demonic. Two contrasting stylistic features – one minimalist, the other, intense but lyrical – characterize the piece as a whole. The rapidly “sawing” violin part falls within a long tradition beginning with Tartini’s sonata, nicknamed “The Devil’s Trill,” or the fiendishly difficult capricci by Paganini. How this virtuosic frame fits the two politically-motivated songs remains less obvious. But the songs emerge periodically, often as part of a chaos of counterpoint, reminding this writer of Dante’s Inferno, where the tender, heartbreaking tale by the lovers, Paolo and Francesca, temporarily mitigates the tortured screams of the damned and their tormentors.
Ludwig van Beethoven 1770-1827
Ludwig van Beethoven
Ludwig van Beethoven
Violin Sonata in G major, Op. 96

The great composers of the nineteenth century, Schubert, Schumann and Brahms, recognized the difficulties in developing their own musical language in the long shadow cast by Beethoven. “You don’t know what it is like always to hear that giant marching along behind me,” wrote Brahms to the conductor Hermann Levi. Yet Beethoven himself had to face the same issue when he moved to Vienna in November 1792. The giant shadow he had to overcome was that of Mozart, dead less than a year, and to a lesser extent that of Haydn, still very active, respected and beloved by all.

The sonata was the genre in which Beethoven gradually charted a completely new course with only the occasional backward glance at his predecessors. In their originality of form and emotional intensity, the piano sonatas reflect Beethoven's creative development throughout his career. But the sonatas for piano and strings broke new ground as well. Before Beethoven, the Classical duo sonata for keyboard and any other instrument definitely featured the keyboard in the dominant role. Even Mozart's later violin sonatas, while they feature dialogue between the two instruments, do not give the violin true independence or exploit its unique voice.

Already starting with his first violin sonatas, the three of Op. 12, Beethoven began breaking loose from the Mozartian model. Grander and more complex, they feature greater technical demands on the violinist and an increasingly equal role for the two instruments. This evolution in style became more pronounced with later sonatas, making them more suitable for the concert hall rather than for amateur private performance in aristocratic salons.

The last of Beethoven’s violin sonatas, Op. 96, was dedicated to his friend, patron and pupil, Archduke Rudolph, who was the pianist at the premiere together with French violin virtuoso Pierre Rode. Rode had an aversion to the usual loud bravura passages in final movements that were popular in Vienna. Consequently, Beethoven wrote to the Archduke: “ view of Rode’s playing I have had to give more thought to the composition of this movement. In our finales we like to have fairly noisy rushing passages, but Rode does not care for them, so I have been somewhat hampered.” A reviewer commented on the new work: ”...nothing more need be said about this work than that it leaves all other works of this type behind...”

Perhaps in deference to Rode’s reserved style of playing, the entire sonata is both subtle and understated in the writing for both instruments. Both the first and second movements are particularly gentle. Characteristic also is an overall asymmetry of the phrasing, especially in the first movement. Example 1 Example 2 And in the second movement, the violin’s imitation of the opening piano theme Example 3 stretches the phrase length. Example 4 The middle section ramps up the emotional content. Example 5 The second movement ends on the dominant of G minor, moving without a pause into the brief scherzo/trio. Example 6 Example 7 The final movement that had caused Beethoven some concern is a set of variations that completely eschew the usual flash and glam associated with this form. Instead, near then end of the movement, Beethoven varies his theme in unusual ways, breaking the constraints of the regular phrasing, Example 8 including an unusual contrapuntal variation Example 9 and finally a false ending plus a coda.
Franz Schubert 1797-1828
Franz Schubert
Franz Schubert
Rondo in B minor for Violin and Piano, D. 895, “Rondeau brilliant”

It is ironic that in 1827, with his health deteriorating, Franz Schubert finally began to gain recognition as a composer. More of his music was published and performed, especially in Germany and England, and in June he was finally elected as full member of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, the Society of the Friends of Music of the Austrian Empire. Among his works published that year was the Rondeau in B minor, composed the previous October.

Schubert composed the Rondeau for Josef Slawjk, a brilliant young violinist newly arrived in Vienna from Bohemia. The two became good friends and Schubert composed a work to demonstrate the violinist’s technical and musical strengths, as well as his stamina. In one of the few reviews during Schubert’s lifetime – and that just before his untimely death – Wiener Zeitschrift für Kunst (Vienna's Journal for Art) praised the work

The clever piece is full of irregular phrasing, sudden key changes and mood swings. Schubert skillfully takes a few thematic units, developing them repeatedly but always cleverly reworking them so as not to bore either the listener or performer. The piece opens with a lengthy dramatic introduction, with pounding piano statements in dotted rhythm, followed by flourishes for the violin. Example 1 It continues by exploiting Schubert’s by now typical vacillation between major and minor modes. Example 2

There follows the formal rondo Allegro, which mirrors the Sturm und Drang of the introduction. Example 3 A jaunty closing figure sets off the separate sections as if to say, “See, I didn’t really mean it.” Example 4 The allegro melody that serves as the rondo refrain is never restated verbatim. The episodes between the rondo statements cover the emotional spectrum, much like a development section of a sonata movement, Example 5 including a reworking of the material from the introduction, now sped up and disguised to be incorporated into the context of the allegro theme. Example 6 Schubert includes a second gentler theme that he also develops along with the rondo. Example 7 The piece concludes with a coda accelerated to presto.
Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2019