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8.570524 - GADE, N.W.: Violin Sonatas Nos. 1-3 (Borup, Conner)

Niels Wilhelm Gade (1817–1890)
Violin Sonatas


It has been a long time since I was so vividly and profoundly impressed by a work. Every bar filled me with wonderment, and yet made me feel at home. I simply had to thank you for all the pleasure it has given me. I want to tell you how much I esteem your wonderful talent, and how much this symphony, the only work of yours I know up to now, makes me eager to know everything you have created and will be creating.
– Felix Mendelssohn, 13 January 1843

This remarkable and unusual letter started the international career of the Danish composer Niels W. Gade. The letter was a response to Gade’s First Symphony, which he had sent to Mendelssohn in early 1843. The attention and respect that Mendelssohn showed this completely unknown 23-year-old Dane, immediately thrust Gade into the centre of European music life and their friendship and mutual admiration would become one of the cornerstones in the development of Scandinavian music.

Gade’s career started in more humble surroundings with violin lessons from his father, a master-joiner and instrument-maker in Copenhagen. He progressed quickly, and soon received instruction from prominent Danish violinists Frederik Wexschall and Andreas Berggreen, leading to an engagement with the Royal Danish Orchestra at an early age. His real passion was composing, however, and following the tremendous success of his overture Opus 1, Echoes of Ossian, he received the encouragement needed to pursue this career-path. Upon completing his Symphony No. 1 he decided to send a copy of the work to his great idol in Leipzig, Felix Mendelssohn. After receiving the overwhelmingly positive response, Gade decided to travel to Leipzig for further studies.

Gade’s natural talent for conducting, together with his easy-going personality, quickly gave him a positive reputation in Germany. In the autumn of 1844 he received notice that the Gewandhaus Orchestra offered him the position as substitute conductor to relieve Mendelssohn, who now also was music director in Berlin. This was a tremendous opportunity for Gade and he rapidly assumed an influential position in Leipzig. He conducted countless concerts, and gave the premières of several central works of romantic literature, among them Mendelssohn’s beloved Violin Concerto, Op. 44, with Ferdinand David as soloist.

In Leipzig Gade also became close friends with other important musicians and composers such as Joseph Joachim, and Clara and Robert Schumann. Robert Schumann, who cherished Gade’s music and personality, wrote in the German periodical Gesammelte Schriften über Musik und Musiker about him:

A compelling, distinctive Nordic character emerges for the first time in his music: however, Gade himself would certainly be the last to deny how much he owes to German masters. They repaid the enormous diligence with which he devoted himself to their works (he knows just about everything everyone ever wrote) with the gift they offer to all who are faithful to them, namely, the blessing of mastery.

Schumann would later pay a personal and musical tribute to Gade with his jesting piece Nordisches Lied, Op. 68, based on Gade’s last name (using the notes G-A-D-E), and they remained in close contact until Schumann’s illness and death in 1856.

When Mendelssohn unexpectedly died on 4 November 1847, Gade was chosen as his successor as music director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. He was now one of the most influential people in German music and possibilities for him seemed unlimited. His position would prove to be short-lived, however, as Denmark, in 1848, declared war on Prussia, thus starting the First Schleswig War. Staying in Germany was unthinkable and Gade returned to Copenhagen, where he soon took up the position of director of the Copenhagen Music Society and later became director of the Royal Danish Conservatory of Music. In this position he helped create a successful environment for the first generation of composers with a distinct Nordic voice such as Edvard Grieg, Carl Nielsen, Johan Svendsen and Christian Sinding. Gade was responsible for introducing Beethoven, Schumann and Mendelssohn’s music to a wider audience in Denmark.

Each of the three sonatas for violin and piano mark a significant part of Gade’s career. The Sonata No. 1 in A major, Op. 6 (1842), belongs to the early period. The piece is dedicated to Clara Schumann, one of the foremost pianists of the time, and has a simple, and almost innocent, character. Lacking grand endings and obvious bravura, the work rather shows the ethereal (feminine?) side of a romantic, virtuoso sonata with complicated and challenging passages in both piano and violin. Certain harmonic progressions and passages invoke the memory of the great master, Franz Schubert. Even though the evidence is inconclusive, the piece was most likely first performed in a private setting by Mendelssohn and Ferdinand David.

Sonata No. 2 in D minor, Op. 21 (1849), is the most popular and probably the best balanced in form of the three sonatas. The work was written in the aftermath of Gade’s forced departure from Germany and is dedicated to Robert Schumann. The dark key of D minor reveals an almost Beethovian obsession with a seven-note motif which recurs a number of times throughout the piece. The stormy mood of the first movement is recalled in the slow opening of the finale, but soon a sunny and exuberant D major tonality takes the listener to an ecstatic finish. The alternating slow and fast sections in the Larghetto showed Gade’s mastery of form and inventive approach to tempo. Joseph Joachim helped Gade refine the violin part and the piece was first performed by Joachim with Robert Schumann.

Sonata No. 3 in B flat major, Op. 67 (1885), was composed towards the end of Gade’s active career. This weighty four-movement work displays a composer comfortable with his abilities and in complete mastery of form. The second movement has an elf-like character, setting up the gorgeous third movement, Romanze, arguably the central movement of this sonata. Gade ends his compositions for violin with a virtuosic tour-de-force in the last movement, leaving both the performer and listener wishing for more.

Hasse Borup

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