Notes by Audrey Chen
HEINRICH BIBER: Passacaglia for Solo Violin, from his set of 15 “Rosary” Sonatas, also known as “Mystery” Sonatas (ca 1670s)
Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber (1644-1704) was born in the small town of Wartenburg, in northern Bohemia (now modern day Czech Republic). In the autumn of 1670, he traveled to Salzburg and entered the service of Prince-Archbishop Max Gandolph, defecting from a previous job. His new employer encouraged devotions to the Rosary, laying the groundwork for Biber’s “Rosary”, or “Mystery” Sonatas.
Each of Biber’s fifteen “Mystery” Sonatas bears a miniature ink engraving depicting the mysteries of the Rosary – each an important episode in the life of the Virgin Mary. The Passacaglia serves as a sort of appendix to this set: it sits at the very end, unaccompanied, solemn, and evocative of the guardian angel and child drawing that precedes it in the manuscript. The piece begins with four descending notes, followed by sixty-five variations upon those four notes (but who’s counting?), a tapestry of chord, counterpoint, and ornamentation that captivates and entwines the imagination for its entire duration.
REINHOLD GLIÈRE: 8 Pieces for Violin and Cello, Op. 39 (Prelude — Gavotte — Berceuse)
Though perhaps overshadowed today by composers like Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, and Glazunov, Reinhold Glière enjoyed a large profile during his lifetime in the Soviet Union, especially following the Russian Revolution in 1917. A Soviet composer of Polish and German descent, Glière upheld the Russian romantic tradition, incorporating nationalist and folk elements into his works – much to the favor of the Soviet regime. Glière wrote his 8 Pieces for Violin and Cello fairly early on in his career (1909), prior to the tumult of the revolution that led composers like Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky to flee the country. The duets are a set of miniatures, each with their own charming character: of the eight, the opening Prelude is serious yet yearning, the Gavotte stately yet dancing, and the Berceuse lulling and sweet.
NICCOLÒ PAGANINI: Caprice No. 1, from Twenty-Four Caprices for Solo Violin Op. 1
Niccolò Paganini, depicted in drawings wielding his bow and instrument with commanding poise and intent, was hailed as a one-of-a-kind virtuoso and was rumored to have sold his soul to the devil in exchange for such prodigious talent. Paganini’s celebrity reputation may have been unprecedented, but it arose during the Napoleonic Wars, a time culturally and socially ripe for the militaristic heroism and gendered conception of power reflected in his Romantic persona and command of the instrument. His reputation ultimately paved the way for the modernization of what a solo performing career could look like, facilitating the long lineages of violin gurus and their protégé students.
Paganini’s Twenty-four Caprices, the only work that Paganini allowed to be published during his lifetime, embodies the pinnacle of violinistic feats and is standard repertoire for violin soloists across the globe today. The first caprice, No. 1, is one of the shortest in the collection. It is light and springy, with the bow bouncing sweetly for each arpeggiation.
MAURICE RAVEL: Sonata for Violin and Cello
The emotional response to Claude Debussy’s death in March of 1918, amplified by the backdrop of World War I, indicated how significant of a French cultural icon he was. A high-profile tribute came in the form of La Revue musicale, an ambitious contemporary music publication founded by musicologist Henry Prunières. Prunières asked several composers including Ravel, Bartók, Stravinsky, Satie, and deFalla to each compose a tribute to the late composer for the issue’s December edition, “Le Tombeau de Claude Debussy.” Ravel contributed a duo for violin and cello, which later became the first movement of his Sonata for Violin and Cello. He returned to and completed the piece after a difficult compositional process, working on it for a year and a half as he vacationed in the Basque region.
Ravel and Debussy had a unique relationship. Glamorized as one of the more famous feuds in classical music history, their friendship was not an easy one. While the two were understanding of their differences in compositional styles, Debussy and Ravel’s admirers began forming factions that pitted the two composers against each other, leading Ravel to state, “It’s probably better for us, after all, to be on frigid terms for illogical reasons.” It is no surprise that Ravel’s homage bears an awareness of Debussy’s late works in his composition, with its sparse harmonies, thin texture, and clear melodic lines.
Ravel played an active role in preparing the piece for its world premiere, working closely with violinist Hélène Jourdan-Morhange and cellist Maurice Maréchal. Jourdan-Morhange’s rehearsal notes speak to Ravel’s obsession with detail, especially textural: she writes that her bow must bounce “like a mechanical rabbit” in the last movement and that the “cello has to sound like a flute and the violin like a drum.” Ravel himself characterized the work as a “machine for two instruments.” Accordingly, each of the four movements indicate a wide range of unique sounds and running motors, with the flute-like quality of the cello in the opening, the plucking plodding of the second movement and the folk influences in the last two movements.
COLIN JACOBSEN: Lydia’s Reflection
The composer writes: A piece for two brothers of the bow, luxuriously clothed in an ancient mode. There are drones, simple questions, sweet and simple melodic lines gently lapping up against each other and quitely asking, “Who is Lydia anyways?”