It took Grieg a little while to marry form and folk. His Violin Sonata No 1 in F major, Op 8, was composed in 1865, when Grieg was twenty-two. It begins with two chords in the piano—an echo, conscious or otherwise, of the two chords (Beethoven’s drastic compression of the introduction to the Classical symphony) that launch the Eroica
Symphony. There’s another Beethoven connection, too: the key, F major, is the same as that of Beethoven’s ‘Spring’ Sonata, and indeed there is a spring-like freshness about Grieg’s invention throughout this work. He tackled sonata-form not on its own ground but by overwhelming it with a profusion of lyrical ideas. Even so, he is careful to set them in context: he could, for example, have begun the work with the Allegro con brio idea that launches the movement proper—but those two chords, in E minor and A minor (the tonic and subdominant triads of E minor), immediately give it the feel of the sun coming out from behind the clouds, highlighting its rustic charm. Again and again you can hear Grieg standing back from the onward rush of melody with a brief gesture that enhances its effect. Although there are discreet echoes of Norwegian folk-music in the first movement (not least in the modal inflections of much of the melodic material), it is not until the second—which is both slow movement and aba scherzo and trio—that he explicitly simulates the music of the hardingfele, with the trio presenting the double-stopping and pedal points of a springar. But the outer sections feature another Grieg fingerprint, also folk-derived: a falling three-note figure, a minor second followed by a major third—here A, G sharp, E, but you also have it at the start of the opening tune of the Piano Concerto, for example. It occurs in Grieg’s music so often that it is sometimes referred to as the ‘Grieg motif’ or ‘Grieg formula’. The finale, like the first movement, builds its structure from a chain of three contrasting melodies that sparkle like a mountain waterfall.
Grieg himself played the piano in the first performance of the work, in Leipzig in mid-November 1865, during a stop-over on his way to Italy; the violinist was the Swede Anders Petterson. The next year Peters, the Leipzig publisher, issued the piece in a timorous print-run of 125 copies. It was probably one of those, though, which brought the work to Liszt’s attention, occasioning this letter to Grieg:
I am glad to be able to tell you of the sincere pleasure that I have derived from reading through your Sonata, Op 8. It bears witness to a talent for composition—vigorous, reflective, inventive, and of excellent material—which has only to follow its own way to rise to the heights. I assume that in your own country you receive the success and encouragement you deserve. You will not lack these elsewhere, either: and if you come to Germany this winter, I warmly invite you to visit Weimar for a while, so that we may get to know each other.
(F. Liszt, 29 December 68, Rome)
from notes by Martin Anderson © 2006