Known for his virtuosity and probing musicianship, violinist James Ehnes has performed in over 35 countries on five continents, appearing regularly in the world’s great concert halls and with many of [...]
They spoke about it
Smetana: From the Homeland, Two Pieces for Violin and Piano
In 1880, the publisher Hugo Pohle was looking to build on the success of his publication of Brahms’s famous Hungarian Dances and Dvorák’s Slavonic Dances. He thus approached Bedrich Smetana (1824-1884), who was well-known for his nationalism. The composer suggested a two-part work for violin and piano entitled From the Homeland, but he withdrew his proposal when the publisher insisted that the title be in German. Smetana dedicated its eventual publication to Prince Alexander Thun-Taxis, who in return sent him an ivory snuffbox. According to Smetana himself, the piece is “in a true national style, but with melodies that are entirely my own.”
Dvorák: Romantic Pieces, Op.75, for Violin and Piano
Dvorák’s Romantic Pieces, Op.75, were originally composed for an unusual string trio: two violins and viola. In 1887, Antonín Dvorák (1841-1904) took in a student in chemistry as a lodger. The student was an amateur violinist and would occasionally play duets with his teacher. One day Dvorák offered to join them on viola and wrote the Trio in D major, Op.74, for this ensemble. But the student found the piece too difficult, so Dvorák composed four pieces—collectively called Miniatures (Op.75a)—to which he gave individual names describing their characters: “Cavatine,” “Capriccio,” “Romance,” and “Elegy.”
A few days later, Dvorák arranged them for violin and piano, an instrumentation more likely to attract both a publisher and a wider audience. Curiously, however, none of the original titles survived the transition from trio to duo.
Dvorák: Sonatina for Violin and Piano, Op.100, B183
By the early 1890s, Antonín Dvorák’s fame had spread across the Atlantic to America, where he was invited to take the helm of New York City’s first conservatory of music.
For three seasons, from the autumn of 1892 to the spring of 1895, he spent from six to nine months of the year in the United States. Though Dvorák was homesick from the start, he continued to compose, including what would become his most celebrated work, the Ninth Symphony, “From the New World.” This sonatina, however, was written between November 19 and December 3 to celebrate his return home after nine months overseas. He composed it for his daughter Otilká, already an accomplished pianist at age fifteen, and his son Toník, who at ten was a beginner on the violin but already playing quite well. Dvorák called the piece “Sonatina” to underline its unpretentiousness but also to indicate that “adults might also take pleasure from it in their manner.”
In the sonata form of the opening “Allegro risoluto,” the first theme, introduced by the violin, is “resolute” from the outset. The second theme begins more timidly, however; shared between the piano and violin, it seems to evoke a distant gallop that gains momentum as it approaches. The mournful “Larghetto” in G minor is taken from a native American tune that Dvorák had heard in April 1893 during a trip to Minnehaha Falls, a place made famous by H. W. Longfellow’s epic poem Song of Hiawatha, which Dvorák had read as a young man and planned to turn into an opera. Though the composer never approved, this movement also has a life of its own, often entitled “Indian Lament.” The “Scherzo, molto vivace” is full of striking contrasts, with different rhythms and dances succeeding each other as if to suggest a ball. In the final “Allegro,” the festivities reach their most effervescent. Twice, however, a slower, more melancholy theme interrupts, as if a couple, needing a break from the dance floor, has walked out to the garden to contemplate the stars.
Janácek: Sonata for Violin and Piano
After years of obscurity, Leos Janácek (1854-1928) was in his sixties when Europe discovered his opera Jenufa in 1918, thrusting him abruptly into the limelight. Yet even this masterpiece—a striking mélange of regional speech inflexions, Moravian folklore, and an incandescent harmonic and rhythmic language that pointed to Stravinsky—went almost unnoticed when it was composed fifteen years earlier, in 1904. With several other lyric dramas (including Katia Kabanova) following in the 1920s, Janácek became one of the major opera composers of the early 20th century. The success of Jenufa naturally drew attention to Janácek’s instrumental music, the mature works of which have a similar style.
The Sonata for Violin and Piano was premiered in 1922, but the story of its composition began much earlier. Janácek wrote two drafts of the piece in 1880 while a student in Germany; dissatisfied, however, he shelved them. Finally in 1913-14, he reworked certain sections of what would be his only foray into the genre. He revised the piece yet again in 1921, before its premiere the following year.
As many scholars have noted, in the opening movement—a “Con moto” in D flat—the main theme and the constant oscillation between rhapsodic and meditative moods are reminiscent of the heroine’s final monologue in Katia Kabanova before she commits suicide. In the “Ballada (con moto),” the melody unfolds with an expansive, Moravian-flavoured lyricism, flowing from a serene E major to an agitated D-sharp minor, before fading into a more nocturnal atmosphere. The “Allegretto” again borrows from Katia Kabanova, this time the “destiny” theme. Piano and violin develop this as a contrasting tripartite form (ABA), with two lively sections framing a more meditative central section. In the final movement, “Adagio,” the violin and piano weave a strange enharmonic tapestry—the piano, playing mournful gestures in G-sharp minor, continually punctuated by questioning interruptions in the violin, in A-flat minor.
Dvorák: Humoresque, Op.101 No.8, for piano
Trained on the violin and the organ, Dvorák’s interest in the piano came late, and his oeuvre for this instrument consists primarily of short, fleeting pieces. This is the case with Eight Humoresques, Op.101, written during the summer of 1894, which he spent happily in his native Bohemia, though apprehensive about his next trip to America. The eighth of these works comes from sketches of a tenth symphony that never went beyond the draft stage.
© 2003, Guy Marchand for Traçantes, the music research, text-writing and translation service of the Société québécoise de recherche en musique.
Translation: Peter Christensen