The vio­lin is in some ways a prob­lem­at­ic instru­ment.  I’ve always had mixed feel­ings about its pop­u­lar­i­ty, the way it dis­placed its noble and diverse pre­de­ces­sors, the vio­ls, its grasshop­pery diva nature, its demand for vir­tu­os­i­ty.  I give the vio­lin a lot of shit, but one real­ly can’t argue with its emo­tion­al punch.  There’s a rea­son why it’s such a suc­cess­ful inva­sive species, blan­ket­ing the musi­cal land­scape from Ice­landic pop to Appalachi­an hoe­downs to Kar­nat­ic ragas.

Here are four pieces of music that make me love this old ene­my.  Start­ing with the blind­ing­ly obvi­ous,

Bach’s vio­lin sonata in g minor, as per­formed by Schlo­mo Mintz.  The sonatas and par­ti­tas are uni­form­ly gor­geous, but my favorite is this first sonata.  It’s tech­ni­cal­ly chal­leng­ing to pull off its many dou­ble and triple stops while still keep­ing the voic­ing clear, the rhythm sol­id, and most impor­tant­ly keep­ing that secret fire lit that burns under­neath Bach’s best stuff, that vol­canic pow­er.  On the piano, nobody can do that like Glenn Gould, though I’d have to give Vladimir Viar­do an hon­or­able men­tion.  On the vio­lin, it’s Schlo­mo.  This is max­i­mal music for solo vio­lin, a moment of flow­er­ing for the instru­ment that stretch­es it to its utmost poten­tial and, in cer­tain respects, beyond.  It’s like an Old Mas­ter draw­ing exe­cut­ed in a sin­gle con­tin­u­ous stroke, with­out lift­ing the pen­cil off the paper.

(As a side note, the g minor works beau­ti­ful­ly on Baroque lute as well, where many more notes from amongst the inner voic­es can be enun­ci­at­ed.  It then becomes a dif­fer­ent piece alto­geth­er, less spare, yet still expres­sive.  One can think of the Baroque lute as a mid­point between the vio­lin and the harp­si­chord.  On the vio­lin, both hands tend inti­mate­ly to each note, with every ana­log nuance of fin­ger­ing and bow­ing reflect­ed in the sound.  The harp­si­chord is “pure dig­i­tal”, with every ele­ment of a per­for­mance reduced to a tim­ing code.  The piano is the mod­ern answer to rein­tro­duc­ing ana­log into key­board instru­ments, but it’s a very reduc­tive, MIDI kind of ana­log: a sin­gle, per­fect­ly mea­sur­able para­me­ter per note, the speed of the ham­mer when it strikes the strings.  With the lute, the left hand artic­u­lates the notes against frets, mak­ing it a “dig­i­tal hand”, but the right hand is expres­sive in that infi­nite­ly sub­tle, con­tin­u­ous phase-space man­ner of the vio­lin.)

Now we move back in time from 1723 to 1676, around the time of the emer­gence of the vio­lin in the form we now know it, as a solo art instru­ment.  The first great vio­lin­ist and vio­lin com­pos­er was Hein­rich Ignaz Franz Biber.  And my pick #2 is:

The pas­sacaglia in d minor that con­cludes Biber’s Rosary Sonata cycle, some­times called the Archangel Sonata.  This cycle of fif­teen “mys­ter­ies” has a place in my heart.  Every sonata is pre­ced­ed by a round engrav­ing rep­re­sent­ing a bead from the rosary, and every piece is in a dif­fer­ent tun­ing or scor­datu­ra, total­ly chang­ing the tonal­i­ty of the instru­ment.  Some even involve swap­ping the mid­dle two strings.  The scores are writ­ten as if to be played on a nor­mal­ly tuned vio­lin, mak­ing them read odd­ly and some­times non­sen­si­cal­ly on the page; the tun­ing must be dis­cov­ered, and they must be played with blind faith, like prayers recit­ed over the rosary beads.  The result­ing music of course doesn’t cor­re­spond to what’s writ­ten, falling in this sense some­where between score and tab­la­ture.

Only the first mys­tery and the pas­sacaglia are in nor­mal tun­ing.  The pas­sacaglia dis­pens­es with the bas­so con­tin­uo accom­pa­ni­ment of the pre­ced­ing sonatas.  The solo vio­lin begins with the four descend­ing osti­na­to notes, G, F, Eb, D.  The rest of the piece is based entire­ly on this bassline, spin­ning vari­a­tion after vari­a­tion.  This high­ly con­strained for­mu­la is hyp­not­ic, tran­scen­dent, and some­how nar­ra­tive in that way that vari­a­tions can be when done per­fect­ly.  A melan­choly sun­set, brushed in slow and red over a north­ern sky.  Mean­ing with­out mean­ing, a world with­in a dew­drop, minor key scales with­out end. 

The killer per­for­mance, with Franzjosef Maier on vio­lin, is no longer so easy to get.  It was released in 1990 on CD by Deutsche Har­mo­nia Mun­di, and Ama­zon says it’s out of stock but avail­able new or used start­ing at $202.02.  Ah, con­nois­seur­ship is alive and well..


Kei­th Jarrett’s Ele­gy for vio­lin and string orches­tra.  He wrote this in mem­o­ry of his Hun­gar­i­an grand­moth­er, and at its melod­ic core it lilts that gap-toothed gyp­sy note, as dis­tinc­tive as the blue note, recall­ing the shad­owy alley­ways of East­ern Europe.  As clas­si­cal motive music some crit­ics find fault with Jarrett’s com­po­si­tion, call­ing it vague, aim­less or even incom­pe­tent, which utter­ly miss­es the point.  Like Michael Chabon, he brings a pow­er­ful­ly assert­ed and defi­ant point of view to his art, an insis­tence on the sen­su­al irre­spec­tive of art fash­ion, a sen­si­tiv­i­ty to the idiomat­ic.  Jar­rett is a knight, a defend­er of what mat­ters.  He has described his pieces as “prayers that beau­ty may remain per­cep­ti­ble”.  In the Ele­gy, to fail to per­ceive the beau­ty is to have an ear unus­ably dis­tort­ed by affec­ta­tion or style.  The vio­lin, whether ground­ed in the dark chords of the orches­tra or soar­ing free from them, trans­ports the lis­ten­er.  The theme is lost in a har­mon­ic labyrinth, the trav­el­er med­i­ta­tive on a path of uncer­tain return, the dusk now turn­ing to night.  But what is giv­en trust­ing­ly is returned freely.  In the loose reach­es of this sound-poem, sound is re-invest­ed with lumi­nance.


Spiegel Im Spiegel, by Arvo Pärt.  This ten minute work, spare and min­i­mal, occu­pies an oppo­site cor­ner to Bach.  A piano repeats quar­ter-note tri­ads, one-two-three, four-five-six, through­out the piece in the mid­dle reg­is­ter, with a stripped-down bass chord occa­sion­al­ly thrum­ming under­neath for a whole beat, a high bell-like note struck at times.  The vio­lin, very human in its voice, plays slow frag­ments of dia­ton­ic scales over this ground.  (Spiegel Im Spiegel can also be played with a cel­lo, but I think the greater tonal sep­a­ra­tion of the vio­lin from the piano makes that ver­sion more potent.)  This music came at the end of Pärt’s self-imposed silence of sev­er­al years, a peri­od Paul Hilli­er described as one of “com­plete despair in which the com­po­si­tion of music appeared to be the most futile of ges­tures”.  Anoth­er war­rior, then, anoth­er defend­er of beau­ty.  As a rebirth, shorn of the super­flu­ous and reduced to its inmost core, Pärt’s new tintinnab­u­li style could not be more per­fect, and I think Spiegel Im Spiegel— named after mutu­al­ly reflect­ing mir­rors, evok­ing infi­nite regress— is the most dev­as­tat­ing expres­sion of that style in its direct­ness and ten­der­ness.

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