Program Notes for In Mo Yang’s Performance at Purdue

Violinist, In Mo Yang, will perform at Purdue University on November 13. His performance will include works by: Mozart, Grieg, Ravel and more!

Sonata for Violin and Piano in A major, K. 305 (1778)
by Wolfgang Amadues Mozart (Salzburg, 1756 – Vienna, 1791)

Mozart’s first mature sonatas for violin and piano were published in Paris in 1778.  The publisher called them “opus 1,” not realizing that Mozart, at 22, had been a published composer for fourteen years.

The earliest violin sonatas, including some Mozart had written as a child, were billed as ‟keyboard sonatas with violin accompaniment,” and that is in fact what they were, with the violin part being secondary and sometimes completely expendable.  In the set of sonatas to which the present work belongs, that situation has begun to change:  the violin is increasingly treated as the piano’s near-equal, though occasionally one feels that the piano is still slightly “more equal.”  These sonatas (K. 301-305) are sometimes known as the “Palatine” sonatas, because they were dedicated to the Electress of Palatine, or the wife of the ruler of the region in Germany known as the Pfalz.  Mozart began working on the set while in the city of Mannheim and finished it in Paris.

Five of the six “Palatine” sonatas have only two movements—a format common at the time.  In the A-major sonata, these are an energetic sonata allegro and a theme-and-variations in slow tempo.  As in other similar sets, one variation is for the piano alone (as a reminder of the piano’s primacy), and one is in the minor mode.  The final variation is in a faster tempo, to make up for the absence of an independent third-movement Allegro.

Sonata for unaccompanied violin in D minor, Op. 27, No. 3 (“Ballade,” 1924)
by Eugène Ysaÿe (Liège, Belgium, 1858 – Brussels, 1931)

Eugène Ysaÿe is remembered, first and foremost, as perhaps the greatest violinist of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  He was a highly influential teacher and the dedicatee of such classics of string literature as César Franck’s Sonata, Ernest Chausson’s Poème and Claude Debussy’s String Quartet.  Yet he was also a composer in his own right, and if not many of his works are heard with any great frequency today, the six remarkable solo sonatas for violin, written late in life, have earned a firm place in the repertoire.  And rightly so:  these are much more than virtuoso showpieces written by a great performer for his own instrument.  These sonatas are among the most technically challenging works ever written for the violin, but they are also full of originality in their structure and their harmonic idiom.

Each of the sonatas is dedicated to a different violinist colleague of Ysaÿe’s.  No. 3 pays tribute to George Enescu, the great Romanian violinist-composer.  This one-movement work, subtitled “Ballade,” opens with a recitative-like slow passage all in double-stops, not unlike the beginning of the violin part in Chausson’s Poème, though much more adventurous in its handling of tonality.  Then the music takes a different turn altogether, assuming the character of a free fantasy on a dance rhythm.  The melody soon dissolves in a breathtaking cascade of figurations as the sonata continues, combining virtuosity and expressivity all the way to its startling conclusion.

Violin Sonata No. 2 in G major, Op. 13 (1867)
by Edvard Grieg (Bergen, 1843 – Bergen, 1907)

In Edvard Grieg’s mind, there was a very strong connection between the violin and the folk music of his native Norway.  As the composer was growing up, his country’s greatest musical hero was Ole Bull (1810-1880), a virtuoso violinist and pioneering folklorist.  Grieg was only fifteen when he met the great man, who encouraged him to go to Leipzig to study music (which Grieg did).  They stayed in touch over the years; in 1864, Grieg, a fine pianist, paid a visit to Bull and the two played Mozart sonatas together.

It is no wonder, then, that Grieg was drawn both to the violin and to folk music at a time when he began to devote himself to the development of musical life in Christiania (Oslo).  The folk influence is unmistakable in the present sonata:  after a rhapsodic introduction in mostly free rhythm, we hear the first of numerous melodies inspired by the Norwegian springdans, followed by a more international, waltz-like second theme.  Between the two—as at all the important formal junctures throughout the sonata—the music comes to a full halt, resulting in a somewhat episodic structure that focuses on the expansion of the themes in the present moment, rather than their evolution in time.  Instead of relentlessly driving forward, the development section has the violin simply repeat parts of the main theme in a hushed pianissimo against the mysterious accompanying chords of the piano.

Melodically and rhythmically, the main themes of both the second and third movements are related to that of the first movement, although the slower tempo turns the springdans into a lyrical song.  This E-minor movement contains a middle section in E major with echoes of music for the hardanger fiddle, a Norwegian folk instrument that, in addition to the four regular violin strings, has four or five additional resonating strings that produce a characteristic drone.

The third movement integrates the folk influences into the language of international Romanticism.  In the middle of this ‟Allegro animato,” Grieg takes time for an extended ‟tranquillo” episode which is one of the most beautiful moments of the entire sonata, harking back to the middle section of the second movement.  Thus the entire work is shot through with subtle thematic relationships, unifying the three movements in a most compelling manner.

Paganiniana (1954)
by Nathan Milstein (Odessa, 1904 – London, 1992)

A legend among 20th-century violinists, Nathan Milstein composed his own set of virtuoso variations on Paganini’s 24th caprice.  He was the first to do so using Paganini’s original medium of the unaccompanied violin.

Milstein invested the famous theme with a number of contrasting characters, including several slow and lyrical episodes, although the emphasis is still, of course, on dazzling technical display.

Cantabile, Op. 17 (1822-24)
by Niccolò Paganini (Genoa, 1782 – Nice, 1840)

When Paganini wasn’t writing unaccompanied violin pieces, he had the violin joined either by an orchestra or by his second favorite instrument, the guitar (he was also a virtuoso guitar player).  The violin-piano combination is the exception rather than the rule in his voluminous output; for that reason alone, the present short work deserves special attention.  Not published until 1922, it is a heartfelt instrumental aria with lavish ornamentations, reminding us that Paganini’s musical style had a lot in common with the operatic bel canto tradition of his time.

Sonata for Violin and Piano (1927)
by Maurice Ravel (Ciboure, Basses-Pyrénées, France, 1875 – Paris, 1937)

It is not universally known that Ravel wrote not one but two violin sonatas.  An early sonata in one movement, from Ravel’s student days, was discovered and published for the first time in 1975, the centenary of the composer’s birth.  Yet although this work has been available for a quarter of  a century, everyone still refers to the familiar masterpiece from 1927 as “the” Ravel sonata for violin and piano.

Incidentally, these two works mark the beginning and the end, respectively, of Ravel’s chamber-music output.  They were also played for the first time by the same violinist, George Enescu (1881-1955)—in 1897, a sixteen-old prodigy and Ravel’s fellow student at the Paris Conservatoire; in 1927, an internationally celebrated violinist and composer dividing his time between his native Romania and the French capital.

Enescu’s most famous violin student, Yehudi Menuhin (1916-1999), was present as a boy of eleven when Ravel first showed Enescu his new sonata in 1927.  As Menuhin later recalled in his autobiography Unfinished Journey, he was having a lesson with his teacher when

Maurice Ravel suddenly burst into out midst, the ink still drying on a piano-and-violin sonata which he had brought along…Enescu, chivalrous man as he was, craved my indulgence…then, with Ravel at the piano, sight-read the complex work, pausing now and then for elucidation.  Ravel would have let matters rest there, but Enescu suggested that they have one more run-through, whereupon he laid the manuscript to one side and played the entire work from memory.

The sonata became universally famous for its central movement, “Blues.”  Certainly no one had ever included a blues in a violin sonata before, and Ravel didn’t endear himself to the conservative critics by doing so.  Yet he had been fascinated by jazz for the better part of a decade before this sonata and, unlike the conservative critics, did not think that jazz was incompatible with European classical music.  A few years before the sonata, he had composed the opera L’enfant et les sortilèges (“The Child and the Enchantments”), in which the teapot sings a ragtime and the china cup a foxtrot.  In the “Blues” movement of the sonata Ravel gave a perfect rendition of the typical melodic and harmonic turns of the blues, while at the same time remaining French through and through—a real stylistic miracle.

Nor is the jazz influence by any means restricted to this movement.  In the opening “Allegretto,” following a graceful first theme, we hear a motif consisting of a single note, repeated in a striking rhythmic pattern.  One recent commentator has referred to this motif as “a mischievously percussive little figure from the same ragtime background as Debussy’s Minstrels.”  Together with another idea, the development of these two distinct ideas is kept fairly simple throughout.  Towards the end of the movement a soaring violin melody is superimposed on the materials heard previously, to help return the music to the idyllic state of the beginning.

On the other side of the “Blues” movement is a finale in perpetual motion that brings back some motifs from earlier movements such as the ragtime-like figure from the “Allegretto” and one of the characteristic licks from the “Blues.”  The uninterrupted sixteenth-notes of the violin start in a restricted melodic range, but they soon expand to include wider and wider arpeggios and higher and higher positions on the instrument.  The energy constantly increases all the way to the end.

Program Notes By Peter Laki