I can remember few more powerful moments in my life than being on stage performing Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, particularly the first selection from the second Suite: Montagues and Capulets.
The music is intended to accompany a ballet, which in turn tells the story of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Montagues and Capulets are two warring families, which this music conveys quite well.
From the driving power of the basses, to the dissonance in the strings, the staccato attacks of the percussion, and the volume of the brass, the tension is palpable. Make sure you listen from 1:25 to the end!
No study of violin repertoire would be complete without an understanding of the life and career of one Jashca Heitfetz who, in the early 1900s, set the standard for violin playing for decades to come.
Heifetz is known now for his technical mastery, attention to detail, and precision, which have led some to label his sound as being too “robotic” and lacking in “soul.” While there may be merit to this argument, none can deny his place among the pantheon of all-time great violinists. It’s a shame he didn’t live when we had better recording equipment to capture his incredible catalogue of performances!
Today’s selection performed by Heifetz is Henryk Wieniawski’s Polonaise No. 1 in D Major. A polonaise is a slow dance in 3 time. While nothing may seem slow about the violin part in this polonaise, you can hear that the underlying beat is a steady and relatively slow 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3… particularly in the piano.
Aspiring violin virtuosos, take a listen!
Today we return to the violin repertoire, and this time to the unaccompanied, more etude-like side of the spectrum with Paganini’s Caprices.
To refresh, Paganini was known as the preeminent violin virtuoso of his day, and his exploits with the violin were so famous as to create a legend around him that lives on to this day – did he sell his soul to the devil in exchange for the fiendish abilities he possessed on the violin?
Whatever the case, Paganini was not only a performer without equal in his day, but also a composer of music as challenging as he was capable, as evidenced by his 24 Caprices, which remain to this day at the core of advanced violin study and performance.
Today, I have selected perhaps the most famous of Paganini’s Caprices – No. 24 and returned to a performer whom we have also seen before – Hillary Hahn – for her unmatched precision both with intonation and clarity of the bow. Enjoy!
This week we are turning our attention to the violas, but violinists don’t tune out yet!
Our selection is the Viola Concerto in C Major by Joseph Schubert (not to be confused with the more well-known and prolific Franz Schubert). J. Schubert was a representative of the Classical period in music history, as reflected by the characteristics of this concerto, which for violists is always a welcome note as so much of the standard viola repertoire is from the relatively modern era.
Schubert’s Concerto in C Major is a fabulous example of the qualities of Classical concertos – clear statements of a theme (or themes), development of those themes in related keys, clear restatement of the themes with slight variation, much reliance on arpeggiation to flesh out melodies, and perhaps above all crisp, clear, articulation demanded on the part of the string player.
At the end of the day, this concerto is a delightful sample of Classical repertoire, and makes for something invigorating to have on in the background as you go about your daily work – even if you are a violinist! Violists, however, particularly enjoy!
This week, we’re taking a look at something that some of you have played, that some of you are currently playing, and that some of you will have the opportunity to play at some point in your learning – the Bach A minor Violin Concerto. All three movements of this concerto can be found in Suzuki Violin Book 7.
The more one gets to know Bach, the more appreciates what a genius he was. And in this concerto one finds true mastery not only of the craft of musical composition but of the understanding of the violin as a unique instrument. Bach was so incredibly skilled at using the nuances of a stringed instrument – string crossings, bow changes, finger patterns, etc. – to his advantage throughout his composing.
The result is a piece that is simultaneously well-suited to the violin and challenging to the violinist. Students generally find this work to be challenging both in its scope and in its technical difficulty, but they also find it particularly satisfying as it is increasingly learned and mastered.
Here is the impeccable Julia Fischer giving her rendition of this time-honored piece.
The Barber Violin Concerto remains to this day one of my favorite pieces I have ever learned – and perhaps the piece I spent the most time on and learned best. Perhaps that plays a part into why I enjoy it so much.
In any case, Barber’s Concerto is at the same time very similar and very different from other concertos in the violin repertoire. It’s similar in that it shares the same 3-movement structure, shares a similar medium-slow-fast pacing to the three movements, and traces of thematic material can be found throughout the three movements.
It’s very different, however, in it’s use of tonality – the way notes are used and treated relative to the key of the piece – because it was composed in 1939.
The vast majority of concertos in the violin repertoire were composed sometime between 1700-1850, and adhere to the “rules” of tonality that we are used to hearing in Western music. By the 1900s, however, composers felt that the well had run dry on ideas within the standard tonal systems, and began experimenting with both melodies and harmonies that diverted from the rules Bach, Mozart, and even Beethoven to a degree would’ve understood about composition.
The result in the Barber Violin Concerto is something that sounds utterly unlike anything you may have listened to before, but something that is simultaneously uniquely captivating. Gil Shaham brings his usual energy and vibrant tone to the performance, which matches the material perfectly. Enjoy!
A style of composition that we don’t get much exposure to in the Suzuki repertoire is the “show” piece (short for showmanship) – a style of piece intended, amongst other things, to show off the string players virtuosity and mastery of the complexities of their instrument.
One of the reasons that we don’t encounter “show” pieces in the Suzuki repertoire is that the style did not come into prominence until the Romantic period in music history – championed by such composers as Henryk Wieniaswki and Pablo de Sarasate in the mid-to-late 1800s. The Suzuki method, on the other hand, relies heavily on music from the earlier Baroque and Classical Periods.
The other reason is a little simpler – show pieces are fiendishly difficult!
Take a listen to Maxim Vengerov’s rendition of Ravel’s Tzigane. Make sure you hang in there until 4:15 when the melody finally kicks in!