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!
Today we take a break from solo string repertoire to bask in the glory of a composition known simply as the Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber. The orchestral version of this work, which we will be listening to here, is actually an arrangement of the second movement of Barber’s String Quartet No. 11, an adaptation which Barber made in 1936.
Barber certainly had a way with composing for string instruments, as evidenced by his violin concerto (which we will also sample in upcoming weeks). His Adagio contains perhaps some of the most beautiful melodies and progressions ever written for string orchestra, and the work certainly has an emotional impact on the listener. I hope you enjoy!
I remember when I first saw the music for Eugene Ysaÿe’s Six Sonatas for Solo Violin (see example below). The first thought that went through my head was, “How in the world am I supposed to even begin to decipher this?!” Fortunately, having grown up a Suzuki student, I knew to find a good recording and learn to sing the piece all the way through in my head before even trying to study the music.
Ysaÿe was a violinist of the highest quality, having been fortunate enough to study with Henryk Weiniawski and Henri Vieuxtemps – both violinists extraordinaire themselves and also both composers of fantastic violin concertos and other superb works for the violin. His goal in writing his Sonatas (of which there are 6) was to provide for the 1900s what Bach’s 6 Sonatas & Partitas had provided to the 1700s – that is, a work representative of the culmination of violin technique to that time.
Being relatively modern in their composition, Ysaÿse’s Sonatas are likely somewhat strange to your ears. However, their is a particular beauty to them, particularly when played by the likes of Augustin Hadelich. Listen all the way to the end!
Of all the countless composers who have walked the earth over the centuries, Beethoven had perhaps the most unique ability to capture something about the essence of what it is to be human in his music. And his music reflected everything – from the pain, to the joy, from the longing, to the satisfaction.
The third movement of Beethoven’s 15th string quartet is a wonderful example of this quality of his music. Beethoven wrote this movement after recovering from an illness which he feared would claim his life. In this movement, the listener can find both the sorrowful spirit of one who has resigned themselves to death, and later the jubilant spirit of one who has found that they shall have life yet longer.
If you’ve ever wondered whether music has power, take a listen to this movement, and then see what you think! I’ve included both a recording that follows the score so you can see what the quartet players would see, and a live recording of a group at the Fischoff competition, which is an annual competition for ensembles aged 22 and younger held in Indiana. Enjoy!