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Violin Sonata in A minor

'Vaughan Williams: Chamber Music' (CDA67313)
Vaughan Williams: Chamber Music
Buy by post £10.50 CDA67313 
Movement 1: Fantasia: Allegro giusto
Movement 2: Scherzo: Allegro furioso ma non troppo
Movement 3: Tema con variazioni: Andante

Violin Sonata in A minor
The Violin Sonata was Vaughan Williams’s last major instrumental work and was written with the playing of Frederick Grinke in mind, whose performances of The Lark Ascending he much admired. However, as Michael Kennedy, the leading authority on the composer, has observed, the desire to write a sonata for the violin was his own. It was composed during 1952, and Grinke (the dedicatee) and the pianist Michael Mullinar gave the premiere in a BBC broadcast on the composer’s 82nd birthday, 12 October 1954.

Structurally, the first movement ‘Fantasia’ combines both fantasy and sonata-form principles. Five sections are apparent, but ideas which can be labelled as first and second subjects are uppermost, principally the first one which is subject to a process of continuous elaboration as the music proceeds, rather than there being a distinct development section. The first theme is heard simultaneously in the opening bars in two guises: as a rhythmically surging figure marked by a dotted rhythm in the piano, and as a flowing theme on the violin low in its register. Overall the music seems to be struggling to overcome the sombre mood that prevails.

Allusions to the piano’s rhythmic figure continue in the second section whilst the violin offers a cantabile melody. The second main subject of the movement emerges initially on the piano as a hushed, eerie chorale over which the violin’s melody tries, but fails, to bring solace. In the fourth section the tempo quickens as the opening ideas are developed and the music rises to the movement’s climax. However, the tensions are not resolved, for in the closing section the chorale and the violin’s lyrical aspirations are juxtaposed, leaving the movement to end enigmatically.

The troubled mood of the first movement is not allayed by the Scherzo, a sardonic march marked by displaced accents, syncopations and a distinct sense of unease. It is as if the fiends that lurk in wait to beset Pilgrim in the composer’s opera based on Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress have strayed into the music. (The opera had been staged the year before he wrote the sonata.) The violin high on the G string introduces the equivalent of a trio-like section, but with a slackening of tempo, a chorale-like triple-stopped melody on the violin, and hints of the march rhythm, the movement ends once more on a question mark.

The emotional weight of the work is given to the finale, the longest movement, which is a set of six variations on a theme that Vaughan Williams took from his early (subsequently withdrawn) Piano Quintet in C minor of 1903. The theme is presented initially in solemn octaves on the piano, then taken up by the violin. Variation 1 elaborates the theme, whereas Variation 2 is constructed around a canon between violin and piano. Variation 3 begins with alternate solos for the piano and violin, the latter in triple stops, whilst the fourth starts with pianissimo piano chords over which the violin keens a poignant lament. In the fifth variation the violinist plays the theme inverted. Variation 6 is akin to a rumbustious country dance, which comes to a climax, then reintroduces the ‘Fantasia’s’ principal theme. In the concluding section, perhaps to reflect Vaughan Williams’s admiration for Grinke, a short cadenza recalls the melismas of The Lark Ascending, prior to a pianissimo final recollection of the Fantasia theme, but now transformed from minor to major key.

from notes by Andrew Burn © 2002

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