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Violin Sonata No. 3 in C minor, Op. 45

About the Work

Edvard Grieg
Quick Look Composer: Edvard Grieg
Program note originally written for the following performance:
The Kennedy Center Chamber Players play Paganini, Grieg, Leisner & Beethoven Sun., Feb. 9, 2014, 2:00 PM
© Thomas May

It's remarkable how amenable the Classical forms and prototypes-or at least in their most basic outlines, if not their internal dynamics-proved to be for exploring the nationalist preoccupations of composers outside the Classical Viennese mainstream that had nurtured these paradigms. A delectably sensitive and at the same time robust example is the third and last of Edvard Grieg's three violin sonatas.

The Norwegian composer had left his native Bergen while still a teenager to study at the Leipzig Conservatory, receiving instruction from those well acquainted with Mendelssohn and Schumann. And Grieg set about composing his first two violin sonatas at a rapid pace while still in his twenties, just before completing his breakthrough Piano Concerto in A minor (1868)-well in advance of such scores as the incidental music to Peer Gynt, which would tag Grieg as the pre-eminent Norwegian composer. All of those early instrumental works earned the approval of no less than Franz Liszt. Grieg's success in tapping into a folk-like Norwegian sensibility-melodies of his own invention became mistaken for genuine folk tunes-led to a kind of type casting that focused on his gifts as a miniaturist and master of song forms, as opposed to the more complex long-form structures of sonatas and the like. But Grieg held his three violin sonatas in high regard. After a retrospective recital of these works for a Danish audience (with the composer, a celebrated pianist, playing the keyboard parts), he wrote to a friend that "these three works are among my very best and represent different stages in my development: the first, naïve and rich in details, the second, nationalistic; and the third, with a wider horizon."

Certainly Grieg took great pains with the Third Violin Sonata, which has become his most frequently heard such composition. Composed in 1886-87, after a two-decade-long break from that genre, and at the height of his fame, the score was revised before Grieg unveiled the final version in public back at the scene of his academic sojourn in Leipzig. Melvin Berger remarks that the impetus for Grieg to write what was his final sonata was his encounter with the Italian violinist Teresina Tua, a 22-year-old phenomenon he endearingly called "the little fiddle-fairy on my troll-hill." (Her budding career quickly headed south following some unenthusiastic reviews when she toured America, and Tua soon went into semi-retirement.) In any case, the violinist Adolf Brodsky joined Grieg to give the work its first performance.

The very recent influence both of Brahms's A major Violin Sonatas (No. 2) and of the César Franck Sonata, according to Berger, also impinged on Grieg's conception here. Hence the "wider horizon" of the Third Violin Sonata, which incorporates the Norwegian traits that come to the fore in the Second Sonata into a broader musical argument. The passionate first movement alludes to the spirit of dark struggle by now inevitably associated with the home key of C minor. Grieg deftly stages the emergence of one thematic idea from and in contrast to what precedes. Opening with an extended piano solo, the Romanza-like central movement touches on Grieg the "folklorist" with its pristine E major melody in the outer sections, in turn framing a passionately insistent dance. A hint of folk fiddling can be heard in the animated final movement, but Grieg weds this to an exalted rhetoric that's engagingly unpredictable, even as it strives for a bright C major conclusion.