Violin Music Worth Listening To

The violin is a string instrument widely used since its development in 16th century Italy. From that point on, composers have written incredible music for this instrument in solo and group form. Let’s explore some of that music in today’s post.

In 1720, Johann Sebasian Bach composed a set of six sonatas and partitas (a partita is a suite: a set of movements typically in Baroque dance form) for solo violin. Sadly, the set wasn’t actually published until 1802, and even after their publication the works were largely ignored until the Bach revival in the mid/late-1800s. Bach’s goal was to compose in a polyphonic way using only the single violin; listen to 15:50 for a remarkable example of contrapuntal texture. For more information, read here.

A few years later in 1778, Mozart composed his Violin Sonata in G Major, K. 301. This piece is cheerful and light (seemingly opposite from the Bach, in my opinion), as it skips through the themes and creates a dialogue between the violin and piano. Read here and here for more.

Our friend Beethoven also composed several violin sonatas, one of them being No. 9, Op. 47 in 1803. This particular work is known for its difficulty in both parts (it’s also really long for its time; one performance lasts about 40 minutes). Each movement has distinct emotional characteristics ranging from frenzied to calm to joyful.

Now comes one of the most frequently performed violin concertos of all time: Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64 by Felix Mendelssohn (composed in 1844). Although each of the three movements has its own distinct character, they are thematically and harmonically related to each other, and the movements are literally connected through a musical bridge instead of a break. The shimmering accompaniments and the rhythmic drive provide ample opportunity for beautiful and intense sounds. Check out some program notes for the piece here.

And in 1877, Tchaikovsky completed his own violin concerto that is now super famous. He wrote the piece at the end of a depressed point in his life; read more about the background here.

Now let’s jump ahead a few years to 1924, when composer Paul Hindemith wrote his op. 31, a set of two solo violin sonatas. His style is much more brash and “in your face” than the other pieces we’ve listened to so far, which is why I wanted to include it. These pieces don’t lack beauty, however. It’s a little reminiscent of Bach in the sense of a continuously driving line that develops a motif. The first movement of op. 31 no. 1 is rhythmically driven, while the second movement (1:55) is very lyrical and harmonic. Read more here.

In 1935, Prokofiev wrote his 2nd violin concerto. The first movement is dark and haunting while the second movement is a complete turn-around (12:29). The third movement (22:31) is a rhythmic dance. The composer was homesick for Russia when he wrote this music, and his longing is apparent throughout the work. Click here for more information.

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