Mention the name Edvard Grieg to many classical music fans, and they’ll probably tell you how much they enjoy his Peer Gynt Suite or his ubiquitous Piano Concerto in A Minor. Although they aren’t nearly as well-known, Grieg’s three sonatas for violin and piano have made their way into the chamber repertoire – especially the magnificent third sonata. All three violin sonatas not only have great appeal as works of genius but also help reveal Grieg’s evolution as a composer.
The youthful Violin Sonata No. 1 in F Major, Op. 8 – written in 1865, when Grieg was only twenty-two – offers abundant charm, compositional sophistication, and exceptional freshness. Though his fellow Norwegian composer Gerhard Schjelderup described it as “The work of a youth who has known only the sunny side of life,” the piece contains many instances of stark contrast between brightly optimistic sections and darker, more turbulent ones.
One might describe Grieg’s first sonata as a budding genius’s quest in search of his true voice. At the time, Grieg was not yet able to reconcile traditional classical formulas (like the sonata form) with either his profuse lyrical outpourings or the nationalistic ingredients that would color his later compositions more strongly. Still, attentive listeners may detect echoes of traditional Norwegian music in the outer movements, often from the occasional modal flavors of the melodies as well as their characteristically sudden major-minor shifts.
The first movement’s cunning (and ardent) interplay of three contrasting themes often displays lyrical qualities. The only overt folk element is found in the trio section of the sonata’s central movement, where one hears simulations of the unique droning sounds of the hardanger fiddle (Norway’s best-known folk instrument) as well as the rhythmic patterns of Norway’s traditional “springar” dance form. The finale is an exhilarating tumble of glittering melodies, again built upon three varied themes.
It’s interesting to note that Grieg’s first attempt at a violin sonata is what brought him to the attention of Europe’s venerable Romantic-era icon Franz Liszt. After reading through the sonata’s score in 1868, Liszt penned a letter to the young Norwegian, praising his compositional facility and describing the work as “…vigorous, reflective, inventive, and full of excellent material.” Liszt ended his note with an invitation to visit him in Weimar, in the hope that they could get to know each other – which they soon did.
The Violin Sonata No. 2 in G Major, Op. 13 followed the first by just two years, in 1867 – a month after Grieg had married his beloved cousin, the singer Nina Hagerup. While he wrote that it had been composed in “the euphoria of my honeymoon,” the piece – written in just three weeks – often projects the characteristically pensive and coolly melancholic – even tragic – nature of the Scandinavian musical idiom.
Those characteristics are a by-product of the second sonata’s far greater dependence upon Norwegian folk elements. Inspired in part by the eminent Norwegian violinist Ole Bull, Grieg had resolved to lend his music a more nationalistic quality by infusing it with his homeland’s more traditional idioms. The Danish composer Niels Gade (also one of Grieg’s teachers) even criticized the work as being “too Norwegian” in nature – to which the increasingly confident young master testily responded that his next sonata would be “even more Norwegian.”
It’s indeed this characteristic of the piece that proved Grieg’s new-found ability to effectively marry folk elements and classical form. Like his contemporary, the great Czech nationalist composer Antonin Dvořák, Grieg only rarely quoted actual folk material, instead favoring ingenious simulations of it.
The first movement stands as convincing evidence of Grieg’s mastery of more ex- tended musical forms. It begins with an achingly sad and poignant Lento doloroso lament, eventually relieved by a much more upbeat section that – like the first sonata’s middle movement – evokes the traditional rhythms of the springar dance and the droning sounds of the hardanger fiddle. But from there on, the mood shifts back and forth between the poignant lyricism of the opening and the more urgent passages of soaring rhapsodic motifs, leading into a magnificent coda.
The piano leads off the second movement, setting its pensively reflective mood. But the theme soon grows in power and intensity, interspersed with variants of the minor-hued melancholic opening theme. A contrasting middle section shifts into the major mode, bringing an air of calm and quiet contentment before giving way to fresh elaborations of the opening theme.
The dancing final movement emerges as a cleverly built sonata-form rondo, again introducing a traditional droning effect in the exposition as it builds into a waltzlike interlude. The meltingly lovely major-mode central section comes almost as a surprise before morphing into minor-key fluctuations. The bold and brashly virtuosic coda brings the work to a resounding close.
Twenty years passed before Grieg composed his final Violin Sonata No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 45 in 1887. It took him much longer to complete: several months, as compared with just a few weeks apiece for his two previous efforts. While it was his favorite of the three sonatas, he regarded them all as being among his finest works. And the third sonata turned out to be the last chamber piece he wrote.
Grieg – who first won critical and public acclaim as a concert pianist – regularly toured Europe performing recital programs consisting of his own music, usually piano pieces, songs (often sung by his wife), and one of the violin sonatas – of which No. 3 eventually earned the status among violinists (and chamber buffs) as one of the supreme works within the genre’s mainstream repertoire.
The essential character of this work is perhaps best summarized by an inscription (not necessarily the composer’s) found on the original manuscript: “Bold and exuberant, the way I like it.” Sonata No. 3 is also a work with a more somber and mysterious tone than that of the sunnier and more folk-influenced sonatas one and two. Grieg himself described the piece as one that reaches beyond the nationalism of many of his earlier works to a “wider horizon.”
The opening Allegro molto ed appassionato is a bracing blend of four primary themes that share the same triadic foundation, lending the movement an almost subliminal feeling of musical unity. Together, these themes create a relentless, sometimes dizzying onslaught of passionate melodic material that keeps listeners on the edge of their seats – leading into an ingenious coda that at first seems to champion lyricism before shifting to a dark and dissonant ending.
Contrast soon comes with the radiant melody that begins the mostly lighthearted and laid-back second movement, Allegretto expressivo. The middle section – despite its minor-inflected harmonic kinship with the movement’s opening section – makes for a restlessly reflective interlude before the prevailing luminous mood is restored.
Grieg was never one to remain entirely faithful to the strictures of the classic sonata form, and – in the Allegro animato finale – he again bent its rules to suit his purposes: in this case, dispensing with the prescribed development section. After a restless introduction, the movement begins in earnest with an emphatic march leading into a sometimes rhythmically disjointed stretch of urgent back-and-forth dialogue between violin and piano. An expansive sense of melodic longing then follows before returning to the opening march. In the recklessly speedy and virtuosic coda, the march theme evolves into a triumphant paean as it surges to a feverish finish.
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