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Apart from being recognized for its purely musical qualities, the piece caught the mood of the period in an uncanny manner and this undoubtedly contributed to its success, as noted by Ireland’s pupil, the composer E J Moeran: ‘Perhaps more than any other work belonging to the period of the Great War, it was representative of the times that produced it, and it at once revealed the composer as a man who felt deeply, even angrily, but without the sickly despondency so dangerously prevalent in those days.’
The first movement has the character of an inner struggle which is dominated by the arresting, decisive theme that is introduced at the beginning by the piano, but almost immediately taken up by the violin. The theme’s chromatic twistings suggest an anxious, troubled questioning, and by and large the other themes that make up the basic components of the movement provide little real respite from the prevailing mood. Only in the exposition’s coda does a transformation of the opening idea offer the suggestion of triumph over adversity. During the development, desolation is uppermost when over a series of pedal points the main theme appears like a forlorn, lonely echo of its former self.
The slow movement is an elegy of poignant directness commencing with a pensive introduction for both instruments. At its heart is a simple, song-like theme sung by the violin soon after, a melody riven with pathos and melancholy suggestive not only of mourning for the dead of the battlefield, but also of a requiem to the pre-War way of the life now gone for ever, a mood recognized and reflected in contemporaneous British works such as Elgar’s trilogy of chamber pieces written around the same time. In the movement’s centre a lilting, tender theme is worked up to a full-bodied harmonic climax before the elegiac main theme returns.
The finale opens with a portentous slow introduction in which the violin’s leaping, recitative-like line is derived from the main theme of the first movement. However, the shadows that have haunted the previous movements are blown away by the jocular, almost naive, principal theme of the ‘Con brio’ firmly in A major. The pace hardly slackens, with cantabile melodies providing contrast until the return of the introduction; thereafter the jollity breaks out once more with the theme set against ever more bravura piano figurations, as when it is accompanied by helter-skelter chromatic scales.
Perhaps an apt summary for the two sonatas can be made in their composer’s own words in a programme note he wrote about the Violin Sonata No 2 in 1950: ‘I am not one of those composers who feels anxious, or indeed able to talk about his own music. Whatever I have to say is said in the music, and if this does not speak for itself, then I have failed.’ In the two violin sonatas Ireland did not fail, but added to the violinist’s repertoire two of the finest British works for the medium this century.
from notes by Andrew Burn © 1996