Cui, Sonata for Violin and Piano, Op.84

Cèsar Cui (1835-1918) was born in Vilnius, Imperial Russia (now part of Lithuania). He received a good education, part of which were his studies with Stanisław Moniuszko, who was an early Russian quasi-nationalist composer. However, Cui’s family was practical, and allowing Cesar to pursue the career of a composer was out of the question. Thus, he entered St. Petersburg’s Chief Engineering School at the age of sixteen. After further education in military engineer, he joined the Russian Army and became a successful teacher of military fortifications. rising to the rank of General.

In his spare time, Cui became a composer and music critic. He was a fairly prolific and specialized in opera. However, he also composed many short piano pieces in the “salon” tradition. Much of his music is notable for its Russian character. This came naturally, largely because he was a member of “The Five” (or, “Mighty Five”) who actively tried to establish a Russian nationalistic style of concert music. His compatriots in this group were Borodin, Balakirev, Mussorgsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov.

Cui composed the Violin Sonata between 1860 and 1870, but it was not published until 1911. The first of three movements, Allegro, begins with two lyrical themes that have a “Schumannesque” style. A third theme begins in that style but soon turns to more original interplay between violin and piano. This develops one or two portions drawn from those two themes. Then, in a more relaxed tempo, the Schumannesque lyricism we heard at the opening resumes, becomes more agitated, and then completes the movement.

Marked Andante non troppo, the flavor of the central movement’s opening section is more purposely “Russian” in the manner of a folk song. The central section that follows is slightly faster and (again) more like Schumannesque Romanticism. When the first section returns, it brings with it, again, the sadness of many Russian folk songs. However, Cui is brief and the music tastefully forms a coda to the whole movement.

The sonata’s Allegro requires a sense of perpetual motion from the violin in the opening section. Next, Cui turns to Russian flavor for more lyrical thematic material. A transition ensues, involves interplay between violin and piano. This leads to a reprise of the opening section, which is suddenly cut short by a second digression. This turns out to be the conclusion of the sonata, reminiscent of this movement’s opening but with more “fireworks.” This music completes the extraordinary stylistic unity of the entire work.

Beethoven, Violin Sonata no. 6 in A Major (Op. 30, no. 1)

In 1802, Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) composed a set of three violin sonatas, which he dedicated to Tsar Alexander of Russia. The following year Beethoven’s publisher, Artaria, brought out the sonatas as Opus 30, but the composer neither heard nor received anything from the Tsar. Years later, Beethoven composed a polonaise and presented it personally to Tsarina Elizabeth. On learning that her husband had forgotten to reward Beethoven for the earlier dedication, the empress promptly gave him 100 ducats.

Although the A Major Sonata is not Beethoven’s “Spring” Sonata, its opening movement begins with a pastoral quality. The second part of the exposition then moves in the direction of popular Italian comic opera, even to a quickness and comic concluding material. By serious contrast, the development section treats the first theme in canon, later becoming dramatic. In concluding the movement, Beethoven projects a feeling of gentle courtesy.

The extended second movement continues the bucolic spirit of the first through a contemplative main theme. This theme later recurs twice, and in between, Beethoven places differentiated sections that grow into tragic episodes. The first of these is in minor with the violin exploring the dotted rhythms of the main theme’s piano part. The second episode is part declamatory and part gliding, using triplet rhythm. The triplets continue as a varied accompaniment to the last return of the principal theme.

Beethoven originally intended the final movement of this sonata to be part of the “Kreutzer” Sonata (Op. 47). Based on a cheerful theme, the movement unfolds as a set of six “character” variations. The first is a moto perpetuo dialogue between the instruments. The second features the violin in nearly continuous even notes. Variation 3 has the piano’s left hand providing a fast, running foundation for canon-like interchanges between the right hand and the violin. Variation 4 is a study in chordal multiple stops for the violin with improvisatory-style comments from the piano. The minore variation comes next: a serious essay in 18th-century counterpoint, leading to a transition that explores remote harmonic areas. The final variation is a country dance in 6/8 time. The coda recalls the comic opera flavor of the first movement to cap the sonata with good humor.

Shostakovich, Sonata for Violin and Piano, Op. 134

The single violin sonata by Dmitry Shostakovich (1906-1975) was an emblem of deep friendship for another musician: violinist David Oistrakh.  Shostakovich wrote the work in 1968 for Oistrakh’s 60th birthday, and the following year the dedicatee premiered it with Sviatoslav Richter at the piano. The sonata comes from the same year as the Twelfth String Quartet, and the two works share much of the same musical language.  It is a somewhat eclectic language that utilizes 12-tone “rows” without actually employing 12-tone techniques.

In the first movement, an Andante, much of the piano part consists of a single line performed in octaves.  That is the way the work begins: as a thematic tone row exposed in a wide, sweeping arc.  This theme is soon heard also in the violin.  Contrasting sections follow, rhythmic at first, and then an eerie tranquillo. All themes are reiterated in abbreviated form, but a new, somewhat “expressionistic” element is eventually added in the violin: tremolo double stops bowed at the bridge.

The second movement is a scherzo written in the manner of Shostakovich’s early sardonic, incisive style. Both the violin and piano parts are technically demanding, and the movement is a display of virtuosity. The constant build of momentum is suddenly cut short by the abrupt ending of the movement.

Following a largo introduction, the finale unfolds as a broad set of variations on a passacaglia-like theme that is stated by the violin playing pizzicato. The piano and violin pass the theme back and forth, sometimes disguising it with ornamentation.  The climactic moment is reached when, after the variation for piano solo, when we hear an extensive violin cadenza.  As the work winds down, snatches of the “eerie” section of the first movement reappear, and the final notes from the violin are the earlier “expressionistic” ones.

Notes by Dr. Michael Fink, copyright 2023