The term “sonata” supports only the most vague definition. It is probably a multi-movement work for one or more solo instruments – except when it is in a single movement, or for orchestra, or includes a vocal part. “Sonata form” is the structure of musical drama in which tonal centers (and often thematic groups) are presented in conflict, developed, and then reconciled; it is sometimes called “sonata-allegro form” or “first-movement form” (though it can be used for slow movements and finales).
Janácek was a nationalist who chafed under Austro-German cultural and political domination. Though he studied in Leipzig and Vienna, he had little use for the classically hallowed sonata in any sense. This Sonata is his only work in the genre that survives intact, and it cost him a great effort. (Two earlier violin sonatas are lost, as is a piano sonata. He destroyed the last movement of the piano sonata “From the Street, October 1, 1905” – and tried to eliminate the whole thing.)
“I wrote the Violin Sonata in 1914 at the beginning of the war when we were expecting the Russians in Moravia,” the composer wrote in 1922. Like many of his compatriots, Janácek regarded the Russians as potential Slavic liberators, and he responded not only with this work, but also with the dramatic orchestral suite Taras Bulba. The Sonata is built around its second movement, the Ballada, which he had composed earlier. Everything around it changed through at least three versions before the Sonata received its premiere in 1922.
The music in the first movement, however, suggests the impressionistic Orientalisms of Debussy more than anything Russian, with pianism from Chopin. After an introductory cadenza for the violin, the exposition is repeated literally – usually a statement of pure sonata form intentions. But Janácek’s non-traditional sense of tonal hierarchy and skittish motivic development make it a sonata form more implied than fulfilled.
The languid Ballada has the Sonata’s most directed sense of a “tune,” sounding in places like a folksong with strummed accompaniment. The following movement – basically a slow scherzo – is also folklike, though more dance than song. The finale is an impassioned Adagio that crests in a majestic chorale sung high on the violin’s lowest string under tremolo chords from the piano.
John Henken is the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association’s Director of Publications.