Sonata in E-flat major, Op. 18
Strauss is known today for his orchestral works, his operas, and his songs. He burst on the scene at the end of the 19th century with a series of vibrant orchestral works and became one of the leading conductors of his day.
But Strauss was also an accomplished pianist and violinist, and it shows in the idiomatic virtuosity of the Violin Sonata he composed in 1887 (premiered the following year). The composer was only 23 at the time, but he already had behind him a substantial body of abstract instrumental music, including two symphonies, two concertos, two piano trios, a piano quartet, a string quartet, and a cello sonata, as well as dozens of songs.
The Violin Sonata was completed just before Strauss began his first burst of tone poem creation – Don Juan, Death and Transfiguration, Macbeth – and it often presages the densely woven, highly interactive texture of those works, although it would be just as apt to remark that the tone poems continue the instrumental brilliance of the earlier abstract pieces.
The nobly aspiring outer movements remind us that E-flat was also to be the key of Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life), as it was of Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony. Consummately crafted, they have a refined sparkle that overcomes the dark intrusions with confident energy. Strauss had already come to regard sonata form as a “hollow shell,” but one that he filled here with characteristic thematic ebullience and sophistication.
The first movement shifts meter freely for different themes, and even has the two instruments playing in different meters at one point. The Finale begins with a hushed, premonitory prelude for the piano, before launching the energetic main theme, which is closely related to the opening (and emphatic closing) of the first movement. It is emotionally and technically turbulent, but relatively stable harmonically and metrically until Strauss shifts into the triple-meter variant in C-flat presaged by the piano introduction.
The Violin Sonata was composed the year that Strauss first met the soprano Pauline de Ahna, whom he would later marry, and it is not hard to hear suggestions of romantic ardor in the lush lyricism of the work. This is particularly true of the rapt, long-breathed Improvisation, the Andante cantabile middle movement, which proved so popular that Strauss allowed it to be published separately.
— John Henken