About this Recording
8.559150 - BOLCOM: Violin Sonatas Nos. 1-4
English  German 

William Bolcom (b. 1938)
Violin Sonatas

The Seattle-born composer and pianist William Bolcom studied at the University of Washington with George Frederick McKay and John Verrall, with Darius Milhaud at Mills College and the Paris Conservatoire, and earned his doctorate at Stanford University. Since 1973 he has taught at the University of Michigan, where he is the Ross Lee Finney Distinguished Professor of Music in Composition, has undertaken commissions from organizations and individuals worldwide, and has received numerous honours and awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1988 for his 12 New Etudes for Piano.

Bolcom’s compositions, widely performed and recorded, include seven symphonies, various concertos, three operas for Lyric Opera of Chicago, three theatre operas, and an extensive catalogue of chamber music as well as keyboard, vocal, and choral music. For over thirty years Bolcom has accompanied his wife, mezzosoprano Joan Morris, in performances, both on stage and in over two dozen recordings of American popular song. William Bolcom offered the following notes about the four violin sonatas:

Ever since I was small I have been fascinated by two musical sounds more than any other, the voice and the violin. I cannot sing, although until recently I had so-called perfect pitch, a gift that is more a curse than a blessing, I never could seem to get my voice to agree with what my ear tells me is right, and I have never shown aptitude for any other instrument than the piano. When I was about ten we trundled out my maternal grandfather’s imitation Stradivarius, made in Czechoslovakia, I believe, and I took a few not-verysuccessful lessons; when the violin was stolen out of the back seat of my father’s Buick, that was the end of my studies of that instrument.

I had, however, the wonderful luck about that time to get to know a local practising violinist well and, through him, the violin literature intimately. Gene Nastri, who was then string and orchestral director for the schools of Everett, Washington, an industrial town where we then lived, was kind enough to play through the little violin-and-piano tunes I wrote for him, interspersed with long reading sessions of the Beethoven and Mozart violin sonatas and much else. I cannot think of a better way for a non-player to find out about the history and psychology of that instrument than what Gene afforded me, and I shall always be in his debt.

The First Sonata for Violin and Piano was composed in 1956 during my freshman year at the University of Washington in Seattle. It was written for Peter Marsh and his then wife Joanna, who never did perform the piece. The next spring the violinist Joy Aarset and I gave the first performance of the sonata at a university concert. The present revised version was requested by the Hanley Daws - Katherine Faricy Duo of Saint Paul, who first performed it there in 1984.

I have mostly tightened the piece from the first version - over 200 measures of repetitious passages have been excised, as well as a fugue in the last movement - but I rewrote only slightly, trying to keep the youthful energy of the piece. Only three measures have been added, in the second movement, to fill in a link I always felt missing. I have always had an affection for this sonata and am glad for the opportunity to present it in this new version.

Coming 22 years after the first, the Second Sonata results in part from the violinist Sergiu Luca’s association with the great jazz fiddler Joe Venuti. Luca was one of the first classically-trained violinists of the late l970s to begin showing interest in jazz styles, and Venuti, the living legend in his eighties, still had perfect intonation, dazzling technique, and dozens of fresh musical ideas. One unforgettable evening in April l978, at Michael’s Pub in New York, Joe invited first Sergiu, then my wife Joan Morris and me, to play sets with him, bassist Milt Hinton, and drummer Bobby Rosengarden. (I do not remember what or how we did, as my head was buzzing with excitement at sitting in with the Master.) Sergiu had secured a commission from the McKim Fund of the Library of Congress for a new piece for us to play; that summer, as Composer in Residence at the Aspen Music Festival, I began work on the sonata, incorporating in it many of Joe’s stylistic tricks, alternate left- and right-hand pizzicato, double-stop slides, his encyclopedia of nuances. One day in August 1978 Sergiu phoned me at Aspen; Joe had died, and the Second Sonata became his memorial.

The first movement, Summer Dreams, is a modified blues with a contrasting middle section. Brutal, fast is a furious improvisation on a small interval, containing one of the toughest passages for the piano I have ever written. The Adagio which follows is a rhapsodic arioso leading to a closing, hymn-like tune. The final In Memory of Joe Venuti, a sort of Venutian salsa, recalls much of his style.

The first performance by Sergiu Luca and the composer took place on 12th January, 1979, in The Coolidge Auditorium at The Library of Congress in Washington, DC.

I am told by my long-time librettist and collaborator Arnold Weinstein that stramba means something like “weird” in Italian, and this [the third] is certainly a weird sonata. Its uncanny mood possessed me throughout its creation. I of course had Nadia Salerno- Sonnenberg’s highly individualistic violin style in mind when writing this work; it was a pleasure to invoke her dramatic, passionate personality in my work for her.

The first movement, after a long and highly theatrical introduction, intones “guerra, guerra” in its principal motive, obsessively and implacably, like war in human history. The Andante seems hardly a relief from the tragic mood despite its lyricism. “Like a shiver” is a scherzino leading directly into the last movement, which shares a mood somewhere between the darker tangos of Astor Piazzolla and Arabic music. None of these moods is quite “on the nose” or easily definable literally; the whole work is “stramba.”

Sonata No. 3 was commissioned by the Aspen Music Festival with support by the Debby and Martin Flug Foundation in honour of the 75th birthday of the legendary violin teacher Dorothy Delay. The first performance was given by Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and the composer in Aspen on 12th July, 1993.

The Fourth Sonata is a present from a wife to a husband. Cynthia Birdgenaw, concertmistress several years ago for the University of Michigan School of Music’s University Symphony Orchestra, married another violinist, Henry Rubin, of the University of Houston faculty (concertmaster of the Brooklyn Philharmonic before going to Houston). Cynthia had asked for a technically challenging and brilliant work in honour of her husband’s fiftieth birthday.

The first movement generally embodies a sonataallegro form in miniature, directly followed by “White Night,” an evocation of insomnia. (In the midst of this latter movement a Christmas-carol-like tune emerges, similar, I find out, to a traditional Danish one - not surprising, as I grew up in towns in Washington State with a high percentage of Scandinavians. Whereas the memory of it was intended to be soothing toward sleep, it proved to have the opposite effect on me.) As with the Third Sonata’s finale, the next movement has an Arabic quality, filled with drama and fatefulness - perhaps some prescience of the current world atmosphere? - and suffused with my love of that music; it leads to the Jota finale, a Spanish dance with Moorish roots.

The Fourth Sonata (1994) was first performed on 26th January, 1997, by the composer with the violinist Henry Rubin at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

I am delighted that the married team of Solomia Soroka and Arthur Greene have recorded my four violin sonatas. They have brought a special insight to the works, emphasizing the traditional qualities which I have always insisted were at the core of all four.

William Bolcom


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