The violin was Schubert’s first seriously studied instrument – barring some piano lessons with his older brother Ignaz – and a family string quartet offered him a chamber music laboratory as a young teenager. The years 1810-1811 were filled with string quartets, and in 1816 Schubert turned to solo violin works in groups of dances (including four comic Ländlers for two violins) and a set of three sonatas for violin and piano (first published posthumously as Sonatinas in an appeal to the amateur market).
Schubert composed another duo sonata for violin and piano in 1817, and then waited more than nine years to revisit the medium with the great Rondo in B minor. This was written in October 1826, inspired by the Bohemian virtuoso Josef Slavík. (A largely self-trained prodigy, Slavík had an even more abruptly truncated life than Schubert – the violinist died of a sudden illness at the age of 27, while on tour in 1833.) Schubert and Slavík became friends, and the composer dedicated his Fantasy in C (D. 934) to Slavík the following year.
“The public does not yet sufficiently and generally understand the peculiar, often ingenious, but perhaps now and then somewhat curious procedures of your mind’s creations,” Heinrich Probst wrote to Schubert in 1826, rejecting some of his music for publication. Probst’s opinion notwithstanding, Schubert saw two piano sonatas, some piano duets, and almost a dozen songs into print that year. (And two years later Probst would be writing to Schubert soliciting works to publish.)
Probst was, however, accurate in his generalization about the public reception of works as abundantly blessed with fresh ideas as this Rondo, a piece much grander – experimental even – in form and difficult in execution than amateur music making usually encountered. (Slavík and Schubert’s friend Karl Maria von Bocklet gave the premiere early in 1827.) Schubert opens with an introduction of contrasting thoughts that builds a tension unleashed, almost four minutes in, with the Rondo proper. Violinist and pianist are both challenged, interpretively as well as technically, with the furious vehemence and unbridled joy that contest Schubert’s lavishly detailed musical terrain.
John Henken is the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association’s Director of Publications.