ClassicsOnline Home » MARTINU, B.: Violin Sonatas (Shipps, Vorobiev)
Bohuslav Martinů (1890–1959)
Concerto for violin and piano
Violin Sonata in C major
Sonatina for violin and piano
Chamber music, in all of its many combinations from ensembles of up to nine instruments to duos, occupies a significant place in the output of Bohuslav Martinů (born in Policka, Bohemia on 8th December 1890 and died in Liestal, Switzerland, on 28th August 1959). Although it is the sequence of string quartets, spanning a period of three decades (1917–47) that constitutes his most substantial contribution to the genre [Naxos 8.553459, 8.553782 and 8.553783], there are few chamber combinations whose possibilities he did not try out at some point. Not least among them is the duo of violin and piano, a medium that had held considerable appeal for composers since the late eighteenth century, and whose inherent difficulties of balance and integration were to occupy Martinů’s attention over the greater part of his compositional career, some 36 years in all.
One of Martinu’s earliest surviving works is an Élégie for violin and piano from his nineteenth year. Although at this time still untested as a composer, he was already a highly gifted though evidently recalcitrant violinist, witness his unsatisfactory time at Prague Conservatory that led to his expulsion in 1910 for ‘incorrigible negligence’. Yet in that same year he produced his biggest piece so far, the Concerto for Violin and Piano. In three movements, this half-hour work was most likely intended as a vehicle for his own playing, though it seems never to have been played in public during the composer’s lifetime. The discursive nature of its content, allied to numerous cadenza-like passages for violin and tutti-like passages for the piano, suggest that it may well have been conceived with orchestral accompaniment, but no such version is known to exist.
The first movement opens with a lyrical theme where the influence of Dvořák, as also in the piano accompaniment, is unmistakable. A second theme is rather more earnest in nature, though the lively codetta restores the earlier animation. It is the second theme that none the less takes up much of the central section (note especially the ruminative and tonally oblique piano asides), before the initial theme resumes its course and a reprise of the main ideas ensues; the codetta heading into a short but emphatic coda. The second movement focuses on an eloquent theme with a notable degree of inwardness, before the piano introduces a livelier motif to which the violin brings a more speculative expression. The initial theme is then recalled, but this time in more overtly emotional terms, prior to the subdued ending. The lengthy finale commences with a capering theme once again indebted to Dvořák, contrasted with a reflective theme redolent of the ‘dumka’ that is a mainstay of Czech music. This latter soon occupies the foreground as the music reaches near stasis, only for the initial theme to resume its lively course which, with allusions to the second theme, leads into an effervescent coda.
Several shorter pieces followed in the wake of the above work, but Martinů was not to essay a full-length sonata until 1919, by which time he had become a regular member of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra and had just recently enjoyed his first notable success as a composer with the Czech Rhapsody, written to celebrate the founding of the Czechoslovak republic. This was also a period that witnessed the creation of several ambitious works (above all, the ballet Istar), and the Violin Sonata in C major is one such. In four movements, it is conceived on an expansive scale while deploying a similarly long-range approach to tonal relationships and a freely eclectic manner in terms of style. Most likely because of its size and its formidable technical demands the work was not heard in public until much later and performances have remained rare.
The first movement starts with a long-breathed theme to which the piano adds a measure of animation, becoming more energetic in a demanding solo passage that acts as transition to a more elaborate version of the initial theme. A stormy central section, picking up on the piano solo, takes the place of a formal development, before a varied reprise sees the music through to its rhetorical conclusion. The second movement is a highly distinctive scherzo, the forceful opening chords leading into a fast-flowing theme that features much hectic dialogue between instruments. A transition contrasts crystalline piano arabesques with spiky pizzicato violin writing, then the central section ensues with an expressive melody that builds to the return of the opening chords; a resumption of the scurrying theme bringing about the decisive close. The third movement has an expressive intensity not always associated with this composer—here sustained through the moody opening theme, via a further solo passage for piano, to a more temperate theme that brings with it the most close-knit writing between violin and piano in the whole work. This accumulates intensity on the way to a forceful climax, at whose height the initial theme resumes to wind the music down to a regretful ending. The finale, of the scale needed to round off such a work, begins with a searching theme whose subtle modal inflection touches on an expressive vein not earlier encountered. This gains steadily in forcefulness before yielding to a long-breathed theme that brings heated discussion of the initial theme, given a varied reprise on the way to a coda that presents the main theme in emotionally heightened terms and so provides a fervent close.
Although Martinů did not attempt a work for violin and piano on this scale again, he did return to the genre for a Sonata in D minor and three numbered sonatas (all of which feature on the second volume in this series). There is also a sizable number of individual and sets of pieces, as well as the Sonatina composed in 1937. Having gone through a period conflating Expressionism and Surrealism during his years in Paris (and one which still surfaced, notably in his operatic masterpiece Julietta), Martinů had settled into one in which Baroque forms and folk-derived content were uppermost. The Sonatina is a modest yet representative example of this, setting out its pithy ideas as deftly and succinctly as possible while not neglecting those qualities of wit and fantasy that were to be taken much further in the music which Martinů composed after the Second World War.
The first movement opens with an attractive theme made more so by its folk-music inflection and a lively piano accompaniment that clings pointedly to the violin part. There is animated discussion of these before the theme is recalled, much as it was previously, on the way to the close. The second movement centres on a plaintive melody whose soulful violin writing is given unforced impetus by the piano’s contribution, the theme then being heard in a similar variant prior to the ending. The finale features an insouciant theme that, with its gentler rejoinder, sees the piece on to its lively conclusion.