This virtuosic violin and piano duo were last with us in 2022 to wrap up Beethoven in Wales, their project to play all of the composer’s violin sonatas (which earned them a Royal Philharmonic Award nomination). Now, fresh from their tenure as Making Music Selected Artists, they’re back with a programme of 19th and early 20th century works:
- Four Romances
- Impressions d'enfance
- Three Pieces (Ave, Berceuse and Adieu)
- D minor sonata
Music is political because we are political. Or, rather, music is political when we need it to be so. To illustrate this aphorism, one might look no further than Casablanca (1942) and the musical duel between ‘Die Wacht am Rhein’ and ‘La Marseillaise’. Cinema’s greatest scene? Here’s looking at you, kid.
For Antonin Dvorák – born just outside Prague in what was then Bohemia, under the rule of the Austrian Empire – the necessary cause was nationhood. His Four Romantic Pieces, which feature in our upcoming concert on 14th January, contain, in miniature, traces of the same Slavic folk tunes that pulsed through his larger-scale works – an aural affirmation of his Czechness to his Viennese overlords. Dvorák would take his ideas about melodic nationalism with him to the United States, arguing that, in the songs of the African-American descendants of slavery, “I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music.” (In passing, he was dismayed to learn that the American patriotic song ‘My Country ‘tis of Thee’ was set to the same tune as Britain’s ‘God Save the King’. That we also share, or have shared, the tune with Liechtenstein, Norway, the Kingdom of Prussia, the German Empire and, for a spell, the Russian Tsars only goes to show that context really is everything.)
The Romanian composer George Enescu would also use folk music as a form of national expression, in his case on behalf of a country for which the expansionist dreams of its imperial neighbours all too often took nightmare form.
Which brings us to the contemporary Ukrainian composer, Svyatoslav Lunyov. Such is the way of semiotics that this single statement of Lunyov’s nationality signifies a mounting press of horrors. Horrors from which, wish as we might, we cannot look away. Stalin recognised the power of music: in 1932, he ordered that Ukraine’s itinerant bards – the Kobzars – be forcibly and permanently silenced. We, therefore, take the utmost pleasure in giving you the chance to hear Lunyov’s works.
The last of Brahms’ violin sonatas is a monumental four-movement work, by turns lyrical and rhapsodic, culminating in a thundering tarantella-like climax.
The D minor Sonata, Op.108 (1888) is the last of Brahms’ three violin-piano duos. His symphonies and concertos were behind him; there remained only a few more works to come before his early death from cancer, aged just 63, in 1897. Already he had been named as one of The Three Bs of music (having replaced Berlioz in the initial starting line-up): “I believe in Bach the Father, Beethoven the Son, and Brahms the Holy Ghost” wrote the conductor Hans von Bülow, to whom Brahms dedicated his sonata. Arguably, this is a piece written at the very height of his powers.
But how does one describe those powers in words? Does it help to learn, from a line-by-line reading, that the opening movement begins with ‘a rising fourth followed by a turn figure…[and]…a long-short figure in the third measure’? In the same way, does it advance us any to learn that the artist James McNeill Whistler, Brahms’ near-contemporary, liked his colours thinly spread when one stands before his Nocturne in Black and Gold? It does to some extent of course and yet, and yet… Sometimes our efforts to convey the effect of a piece of music or a painting can feel more exclusionary than elucidatory. As though we’ve a pass to a gilded world from which others are denied entry.
Art speaks – or ought to speak – a universal language. There’s no wrong way to listen to a sonata, view a painting or watch a play. The profound joy of the arts is that we come to them from our own starting point. We bring to them our own knowledge and life skills and, in return, they give to us something that’s far beyond words. As we usher in a New Year marked by conflict on too many fronts, we could all do with embracing a universal language.