Sonata for Violin and Piano in F, Op. 8
Grieg was an accomplished pianist and toured regularly, mostly performing his own music. In addition to solo and duo piano pieces, these concerts usually included some of his songs (with his wife a frequent collaborator) and often one of his three violin sonatas. Grieg considered the sonatas to be among his finest works and he often played the piano part for them, at social gatherings as well as public concerts.
It was the great Norwegian violinist Ole Bull who “discovered” Grieg, in the sense that it was he who persuaded Grieg’s parents to send him the Leipzig Conservatory in 1858 at the age of 15. After four somewhat uncomfortable and unsatisfying years there, Grieg continued composition studies intermittently with Niels Gade in Copenhagen.
Grieg wrote his First Violin Sonata (and the Piano Sonata, Op. 7) quickly in the summer of 1865, while staying outside Copenhagen. He later told an interviewer: “Whether it was the enchanting surroundings or the stimulating air, I cannot say. Enough that in eleven days I had composed my Piano Sonata and very soon after my First Violin Sonata. I took them both to Gade at Klampenborg. He looked them through with pleasure, nodded, patted me on the shoulder, and said, ‘That seems a good bit of work. Now we’ll look at the seams more carefully.’
“Then we marched up a small steep stair to Gade’s workroom, where he sat down at the piano and played with absolute inspiration. I had been told that when Gade was inspired, he drank great quantities of water. That day the Professor emptied four large jugs full.”
Gade’s over-stimulated inspiration is understandable. In this Violin Sonata, Grieg confronted him with a work that takes obviously well-drilled mainstream conservatory expectations of style and form and explodes them with outsider vigor. Yes, this will be a clearly structured sonata in F major, but before the violin enters, Grieg gives two soft piano chords, E-minor and A-minor. Then when the violin comes in with a blithe tune clearly in F, six bars later he gives us a sforzando bump into G-flat: fair warning of the modally inflected harmonic restlessness to come. Then to begin the impressively comprehensive development section, we get a little Andante diversion, revealing in minor mode the implicit pathos of that blithe tune. Following a furious drive to what would seem to be the final cadence, this expressive Andante returns, balancing – or contradicting – the obvious conclusion with subtle mystery.
A mournfully dancing minuet fulfills the omen of those initial piano chords, for it is in A minor, with a whirling folk fiddle trio section in A major for brilliant contrast. The dashing finale is another mashup of folk freedom and conservatory convention, nowhere more apparent than in the development, which begins with a solemn bit of fugue before tearing off to the wild side again.