The best music for solo violin
Composers have been writing music for the violin since the 16th century – but what are the best pieces for this popular instrument? Find here a list of masterworks that should be part of everyone's collection.
J.S: Bach: Solo Sonatas and Partitas
Bach’s manuscript of solo violin works BWV1001-1006, which is itself a work of art, is dated 1720, at which time Bach was a 35-year-old court composer in Köthen. With the slow-quick Italian sonata shape of BWV1001/3/5 and the multifarious French dance suite BWV2/4/6 all on a single instrument, the collection is the German composer’s demonstration of his fluency, and it defied belief that such harmony should arise from mere melody. It is the chaconne that first caught the 19th-century eye (Brahms and Busoni made keyboard arrangements), and remains the masterpiece at its heart.
Paganini: 24 Caprices
Paganini created the 24 Caprices to be the most demanding exercises for a fiddler’s fingers ever written. They exhaustively (and exhaustingly) drill arpeggios for speed and articulation, as well as trills, intervals, multi-stopping, sostenuto, legato, posato, and ‘devil’s laughter’ staccato. Paganini marketed himself as a protégé of Beelzebub. Beyond dry academicism, each Caprice affects a different emotion. The last comprises the leaping theme which has intrigued and enchanted composers from Rachmaninov to Lloyd Webber, and its variations, which put into effect all the techniques just learnt. Who was he kidding? None of his contemporaries could play them.
Vivaldi: The Four Seasons
Vivaldi composed The Four Seasons around 1725. It is the supreme example of ‘programme music’, in which a composer depicts visual or dramatic scenes through the notes. To help the listener, Vivaldi writes the poetic texts he is interpreting above the relevant stave. ‘Frozen and shivering in the glittering snow,’ he prints above the stabbing, icy quavers of 'Winter'. The viola in 'Spring'’s slow movement is a barking dog. The soloist in the lazy heat of 'Summer' imitates cuckoo, dove and goldfinch. In 1953 there were just two recordings. Now there are a thousand.
Vaughan Williams: The Lark Ascending
Vaughan Williams composed The Lark Ascending in 1914, but his contribution to the war as an ambulance driver postponed publication until 1920, with an extract from the George Meredith poem that inspired the piece alongside. It sounds like a paean for a lost, unspoiled age, and the mood is wistful but uplifting. The violinist’s lark-like song and solitary flight are interspersed by earthier recollections of the disappearing world of folk song and dance tunes. Vaughan Williams worried about their loss, but his own work notating singers in country pubs did much to preserve the heritage.
Mimickry, they say, is the sincerest form of flattery, and Ravel’s Gypsy-inspired work is a tribute to the Romany tradition of violin playing. It was written in 1924 for the Hungarian violinist Jelly d’Aranyi, great-niece of violin virtuoso Joseph Joachim, primarily as a promotional tool for the lutheal – a zither-like attachment for the piano accompaniment – but the popularity of the piece long outlived the gimmick. Made up of several sections, Tzigane opens with a rhapsodic cadenza for the soloist with an arpeggiated accompaniment that sounds like the strumming of a guitar, the violin’s traditional companion in a gypsy trio.
7. Beethoven: Violin Sonata No.9 in A, ‘Kreutzer’
Romanticism began with Beethoven’s 'Kreutzer' sonata, written in 1803 not for its dedicatee but for another violinist, George Bridgetower, who argued with the composer and was erased from the title page. Bubbling passions surround it. Kreutzer, piqued at being second choice, never played it, never fingered and bowed what the author Tolstoy heard as irresistible romantic urges, fatal kisses, depths of emotional turmoil and lovers’ euphoria. The vast middle movement variations become an obsession. Truly a key work, it epitomised the age of the temperamental, egotistical artist and, via Tolstoy, inspired paintings and a string quartet.
Brahms: Violin Concerto
The composer Brahms and violinist Joseph Joachim had been friends for 25 years when they collaborated on a concerto. Brahms wrote it on a lakeside holiday in 1878, correcting it after Joachim had appended his criticisms and added what is still the cadenza of choice for most performers. They shared an artistic ideal, admiring classical forms - concertos and symphonies - over trendy new-wave ‘tone poems’. The Violin Concerto is a towering work in a traditional three movements: the first follows a theme as broad as outstretched arms; the second is a singing tune - not for the soloist but the oboe; and the third offers a folk-dance flavour that inspired Don’t Cry for Me Argentina.
Sibelius: Violin Concerto
Sibelius was an orchestral violinist who dreamed of being a virtuoso but became a composer. He wrote the Violin Concerto in 1904 during a period of drunkenness and instability. He challenged soloists with a work which few could play at first; even after he revised it substantially it was still technically challenging. The heart of the first movement is a long soloist’s cadenza doubling as thematic development. The orchestra would usually play this, but Sibelius’s soloist is not just an ornament - the solo is part of the structure. The slow movement is the passionate soul, lyrical and intense. The finale dances on war drums with the soloist spinning melodies borrowed from the violin’s life as a folk instrument.