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8.553904 - GRIEG: Violin Sonatas Nos. 1-3

Edvard Grieg (1843-1907)
Sonatas for Violin and Piano Nos. 1-3
“Last week I had the pleasure of performing my three violin sonatas with Lady Neruda-Hallé before a very discerning Danish audience and receiving a very warm response. I can assure you that we did very well and it had special significance for me, because these three works are among my very best and represent different stages in my development: the first, naïve and rich in ideals; the second, nationalistic; and the third with a wider outlook.”

So wrote Grieg in a letter of January 1900 to the Norwegian poet Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, showing clearly the importance the three violin sonatas have in his development. We can see their importance to him from the fact that he tried to have them performed whenever the opportunity arose, willingly performing the piano part himself. At the Conservatory in Leipzig, Grieg received a basic and thorough musical training. On several occasions when he was older, he had negative comments to make about his years at the Conservatory, but his note-books and exercises from his time in Leipzig show that he had the freedom to experiment in his lessons with teachers such as Ernst Friedrich Richter, Moritz Hauptmann and Carl Reinecke, and it was recognised that he had great talent. He had no reason to criticize the Conservatory. After leaving the Conservatory in Leipzig, he settled in Copenhagen, where he soon came under the influence of Richard Nordraak, with his glowing enthusiasm and unfailing belief that the key to the future of Norwegian music was in the country's indigenous music. His beliefs were of crucial importance in Grieg's development as a composer. Nordraak's influence is most apparent in Humoresques for Piano, Op. 6. These piano pieces, composed and published in 1865, mark Grieg's break-through as a composer. His famous collection, Melodies of the Heart, Op. 5 (settings of poems by Hans Christian Andersen), was published in the same year. The Piano Sonata, Op. 7 is also from the same period. His encounter with Norwegian folk-music and his assimilation of its principal features, developed aspects of his creativity which soon led to many people identifying his music with folk-music. Some, indeed saw him simply as an arranger of folk-music, which offended Grieg because he used authentic folk-tunes in only a very small number of his works. Many of his own compositions were later to be labelled folk-tunes.

Grieg is remembered as a composer of works using smaller forms, songs and short piano pieces. The undeniable lyricism in his music was never challenged, apart from a few works like the Piano Concerto in A minor Op. 16 and the String Quartet in G minor Op. 27, the Piano Sonata in E minor Op. 7, the three Violin Sonatas on this recording, and the Cello Sonata in E minor Op. 36, he was never confident with larger scale works. Grieg himself regarded this as a shortcoming, blaming it, without justification, on the education he had received at the Conservatory in Leipzig. Nevertheless, he demonstrated that he had also mastered these forms on the rare occasions when he found material which could be prepared, treated and elaborated within the framework of traditional patterns.

The Violin Sonata in F major, Op. 8, was composed in the summer of 1865 while Grieg was living in Copenhagen, and at the same time as the Humoresques, Op. 6. In the same year, the sonata was published by Peters in Leipzig, and in November it was performed for the first time in the Gewandhaus by the Swedish violinist Anders Petterson with Grieg himself at the piano. Grieg described the sonata as "simple" and "rich in ideas", and to a certain extent he was correct. However, what is striking about this and the two later sonatas, is how thoroughly "Grieg-ish" they all seem, despite considerable differences between them. It is also worth noting that, even in this first sonata, Grieg adapts well to the features of the violin, even though he had no experience as a string player.

Large parts of the first sonata, the first movement in particular, demonstrate a wish for a certain harmonic experimentation including, among other things, chromatic writing, modality and bitonality. There are rhythmic elements in the last movement which attract attention. The trio part of the second movement shows Grieg's knowledge of the Norwegian folk instrument, the hardanger fiddle, an instrument with which he became familiar the previous year when he visited Ole Bull in Valestrand. As a whole, this sonata is strongly characterized by something fresh and youthful, which makes it easy to disregard the traditional and somewhat stiff formal construction. The first and third movements are in sonata form, while the middle movement is a minuet in ternary form, with the trio being an indication that Grieg would soon take up and transform principal elements from traditional Norwegian folk-music. The Grieg-motif, a theme built on three notes, was gradually to become a trademark in many of his works, and is prominent in the second movement of the sonata. This theme gradually came to be regarded as the musical expression for the Norwegian element in Grieg's music. The theme has the notes A – G# – E in A minor and, in the major key, the notes A – G – E. Another distinctive example of the use of this theme is in the beginning of the first movement of the Piano Concerto, Op. 16.

While the first violin sonata was to a large extent identified by harmonic and rhythmical experimentation, it is thematic unity which characterises the Violin Sonata in G major, Op. 13. And it is the Grieg-motif which, in its various forms, is the unifying element between the three movements. Of the three violin sonatas, this is the one which shows most clearly Grieg's ever-increasing interest in, and identification with, Norwegian folk-music. Rhythmically, Grieg uses the Norwegian folk-dance "springdans" as a model in both the first and last movements. This is one reason for this work being among the most Norwegian of his chamber music works. It was also after hearing this sonata that N.W. Gade told Grieg not to make the next sonata as Norwegian. "On the contrary, Professor", Grieg answered, "the next one will be even more so."

The sonata was composed in Kristiania (Oslo) over the three weeks of his honeymoon in the summer of 1867. In June that year he had married his cousin Nina Hagerup. This is the reason the sonata is so strongly characterized by such a vital optimism – because at the same time he experienced how difficult it was to establish a secure basis for his artistic pursuits. In addition to this, his relationship with his parents in Bergen was bringing problems. The first performance took place in Kristiania in 1867. Gudbrand Bøhn played the violin part and again Grieg was at the piano. The first printed edition of the sonata came from Breitkopf and Härtel in Leipzig in March 1869.

The Grieg-motif, in its simple, original form, is not particular to Grieg, as it appears in many other connections, with other composers and in Norwegian and other folk-music. Much instrumental Norwegian folk-music is constructed of such small melodic themes, almost like cells, which are repeated with small variations. The sections are then connected into larger units. At this time, Grieg was unique in using folk idioms in the development of classical music. The challenge for him was to apply these elements in a formal musical structure, in this case a movement in sonata form. The alternative, developing new forms which could develop from this source material, belongs to a later period and later generations of composers. Even in the improvisational opening in E minor, Lento doloroso, of the first movement, we find the Grieg-motif in various forms. The introduction then develops into a Norwegian rondo (in triple time). The second movement of the Sonata, Allegretto tranquillo, like the third movement, is also in triple time. The form is also in tripartite. The last movement, Allegro animato, in contrast to the first sonata, has no particular form. The Norwegian experts on Grieg, Benestad and Schjelderup-Ebbe, are of the opinion that the movement is in the form of a somewhat free sonata-rondo. The open fifths played on the violin which begin the movement create a strong folkloristic feeling in the listener, but despite the fact that this movement also has a triple beat, the likeness to the Norwegian rondo (springdans) is much weaker here than in the first movement. This is due to the much quickened tempo which gives a feeling of one beat to a bar instead of three. This also makes the two outer movements, despite their apparent similarities, appear totally different.

Twenty years were to pass before Grieg again took up the composition of a violin sonata. The Violin Sonata in C minor, Op. 45, however, represents a high point in his chamber music. Most of the sonata was written at Troldhaugen, Grieg's home in Bergen, in the autumn and winter of 1886. After performing the sonata with the violinist Carl Rabe in Bergen during the summer of 1887, he revised parts of it, and the sonata received its first official performance in December 1887 in Leipzig's Gewandhaus by Adolf Brodsky with Grieg at the piano. Simultaneously it was published by Edition Peters. Like the first two sonatas, this first performance was also a success. In this sonata we see the mature artist who, confident in himself, freely displays all aspects of his talent. Unlike the first sonata, with its experiments in harmony, and the second sonata, with its exuberance and inspiration from folk-music, darker notes are struck here. It has a simplicity and a concentration of expression compared to the first two sonatas, while Grieg also is freer with regard to classical ideals of form. In the first movement, Allegro moderato ed appassionato, he uses two main themes which, despite their apparent differences, seem to have the same origin. A closer thematic study of this sonata reveals a succession of interesting details, not the least interesting of which is the use of the Grieg-motif. When it comes to the form of the first movement, it is interesting to note that Grieg, after the recapitulation, repeats the first part of the development.

In the second movement, Allegretto espressivo alla Romanza, Grieg's lyrical talents once again come to the fore. While to a large extent in the first sonata he carried out harmonic experiments, in the second movement of this sonata he uses creativity in harmony for refined emotional musical colouring. This middle movement is also in tripartite form. While the form in the last movement of the G major Sonata was ambiguous, Grieg has gone to the opposite extreme in the last movement of this sonata, Allegro animato, even though there is also room here for interpretation. In principle we have here a simple bipartite form (AB/A'B') followed by a short coda.

It is cause for reflection that Grieg reaches his highest level in cyclic works where he uses musical material with no relationship or likeness to the instrumental musical language of Norwegian folk-music. Classic forms like the sonata are based on dynamic principles of development. These forms belong to a different world from the world of instrumental folk-music. The efforts of combining these two worlds had to result in different solutions from those which were passed on from Viennese classicism. But Grieg's efforts at synthesis as expressed in the first and especially in the second violin sonata, also demonstrate that music of great value could be created within traditional limits, even though Grieg's efforts above all show the need for new and radical formal thinking as regards source material originating from folk-music.

Øivind Norheim, 1997

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