Another option for a violin sonata is for the fiddle to go it alone, without a partner, equal or otherwise. That presents significant technical challenges to composer and performer alike, challenges not often accepted. Most famous are Bach's three solo sonatas (and three solo partitas, a genre more like a suite).
One who did take up the challenge was Eugène Ysaÿe. A shaping and sustaining influence on French music from late Romanticism through Impressionism, Ysaÿe was a thoroughly rounded musician as well as one of the most revered and accomplished violinists of his day. He received the dedications of Franck's Violin Sonata (as a wedding present), Chausson's Poème, and Debussy's String Quartet, among many other pieces that he championed. He was also an esteemed conductor - including four years leading the Cincinnati Symphony during World War I - and, particularly as he grew older, a composer of great originality.
Inspired by a Joseph Szigeti performance of Bach's six sonatas and partitas for unaccompanied violin, Ysaÿe composed his own set of six solo sonatas, Op. 27, in 1923. Each of the sonatas was dedicated to a younger violinist and reflects something of Ysaÿe's concept of the dedicatee's personality.
In the second sonata of the set (dedicated to Jacques Thibaud), Bach is not just the inspiration but the "obsession." The first movement begins with the opening of Bach's own Prelude from the E-major Partita, which Ysaÿe then violently deconstructs, bringing in intimations of the Dies irae chant from the traditional Requiem mass. The sorrowful, muted "Malinconia" also morphs into the Dies irae, which continues to haunt the rest of the Sonata.
In the "Dance of the Shades," "the souls of the dead arise and dance a nocturnal sarabande," according to Ysaÿe's son. The pizzicato sarabande is also the theme for six ensuing character variations. The first treats the melody as a modal folksong, and the second is a musette, a type of peasant dance with droning bass that Bach sometimes referenced. The third variation is also Bachian, a two-part invention. The fourth variation is slithery, with weird melodic tendrils drooping down from notes of the chant. The fifth variation is a spidery dance into the stratosphere, and the sixth is a bravura perpetual motion whirl.
"The Furies" is the dynamic finale, full of big contrasts between demonic outbursts and ghostly ponticello, abraded wisps of sound produced by bowing close to the bridge of the instrument.
- John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.