Sonata for Solo Violin


solo violin
Commissioned by Minnesota Public Radio International as part of their continuing commitment to present contemporary music to radio audiences nationally and internationally
First Performance
10.1.98, Gustavus Adolphus College, Minnesota, USA: Jorja Fleezanis

Score 0-571-51926-1 on sale

Programme Notes

Nicholas Maw - Sonata for solo violin I Scena II March-Burlesque III Tombeau IV Flight The literature for solo violin forms a small but significant sub-section of the western musical canon, from the sonatas and partitas of Bach through such nineteenth century works as the Caprices of Paganini (which through their aesthetic of virtuosity had such a profound effect on musical history), and on up to the present century, with important contributions to the medium by such composers as Ysaye, Bartok and Roger Sessions, among others. I have always been interested in writing for string instruments, and several of my works are for strings alone: three string quartets, Life Studies for fifteen solo strings, and Sonata Notturna for cello and string orchestra. This sonata is my first large-scale work for a solo string instrument. Music for any kind of solo instrument (keyboard instruments excepted) poses a particular king of challenge to both composers and performer – and, one might add, to the listener as well – owing to the difficulties inherent in achieving true-sufficiency for a single instrument over what might be called a ‘normal’ musical time span. Every musical medium has its’ challenges and limitations, and in solo instrumental music there appear to be three basic interconnected problems to overcome. There is the problem of building satisfying forms from material that due to the nature of the medium is almost exclusively linear. In a single line texture there can only be at most an intermittent sense of bass, and the linearity has a strong tendency to subdue harmonic procedures so that they become more discreet, more ‘subterranean’, than in concerted or keyboard music. Both of these factors inevitably loosen the musical structure. Then there is the question of acoustical characteristics, which is also related to the somewhat reductive nature of overall linearity, as well as to limitations of instrumental range and timbre. All of these can easily become tiring to the ear unless kept in careful balance, so in this work I have tried to ensure variety in the use of register (high – middle – low) and the different kinds of sound (normal, muted, pizzicato, harmonics etc). Lastly, there is what might be called the technical/technique question. It seems to me that in solo instrumental music a rather special kind of virtuosity is called for on the part of both performer and composer. For the composer, I would say this is a question of writing music that exploits as fully as possible the technical possibilities and characteristics of the instrument in order to reveal its’ soul in an individual way. This usually means the realisation of the work will be technically and musically challenging to a high degree, and it is clearly the task of the performer to be capable of meeting these challenges in a satisfying and convincing manner. This Sonata was requested by Jorja Fleezanis, to whom it is dedicated. It was commissioned by Minnesota Public Radio International as part of their continuing commitment to present contemporary music to radio audiences nationally and internationally, and was completed early in 1997. The first movement, Scena, is a kind of free-wheeling sonata rondo. It is based on two ideas: a high, ghostly theme in harmonics heard at the opening, and following immediately, an animated triple time motive reminiscent of a waltz. After a varied restatement of this material there follows a passage of recitando. The movement then unfolds with gathering tension as an alternation of varied and developed episodes of these three ideas. The short coda is a reminiscence of the opening. The following March-Burlesque begins in a manner that definitely suggests the Burlesque elements. The middle of the movement is largely the March, though with interruptions from the Burlesque, and this mocking of the March by the Burlesque remains the activity of the rest of the movement. The third movement, Tombeau, is written in memory of my friend Jacob Druckman. The violin is muted throughout, and as with the first movement, the opening is an alternation and repetition of two ideas: a lyrical line that rises from low to very high, and a nostalgic sighing motive in double stopped tremolo. There then follows a somewhat more dynamic episode that eventually leads via the sighing motive into a passage reminiscent of a funeral march, with a steady, pulsing ostinato played both arco and pizzicato on open strings. There is a short reprise of the faster music, and the ensuing coda is played as though heard from a great distance. The last movement, Flight, is fast and intense, characterised by tremolando bowing and continually shifting rhythmic accents. The centre of the movement is a more lyrical passage in double stopped texture. After this the music speeds up again to a varied reprise of the opening section which, gathering tension and momentum, heads precipitously towards the close. Nicholas Maw

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News & Reviews

'Sonata for solo violin' reviews

'Maw has contributed a work of stature and substance to the repertory … Despite the virtuosic rhetoric of its technical demands – ghostlike harmonics, contrapuntal lines punctuated with left-hand pizzicati, and darkly shaded tremolos … a vehicle for an expressive intimacy, richly inventive and many voiced. It plausibly echoed the strain of spiritual questing that can be heard in Bach’s pioneering examples of the genre.' The Washington Post (Thomas May), 4 March 1998 Read more

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