Steven Moeckel, violin; Paula Fan, piano
SONATA FOR VIOLIN AND PIANO IN E MINOR, OPUS 82 - Edward Elgar
SONATA FOR VIOLIN AND PIANO IN E FLAT, OPUS 18 - Richard Strauss
With this impromptu toast proposed on 20 May 1902 by the eminent composer Richard Strauss, a dispirited Edward Elgar was to see his fortunes change.
Elgar had marked the beginning of the 20th century with the words, "As far as I'm concerned, music in England is dead." following the less than successful premiere of his oratorio The Dream of Gerontius. Indeed it was to be in Germany that Elgar’s works would be greeted with an enthusiasm far exceeding anything he had experienced in his native land. In the audience at that disastrous first performance, the German conductor, composer and pianist Julius Buths was already planning for the future. In December of 1901, he conducted Gerontius in German translation in Düsseldorf. In early 1902, his friend, the celebrated composer and conductor Richard Strauss conducted the first German performance of Elgar’s Cockaigne Overture, and Buths, who had been the pianist for the first performance of Strauss’ Violin Sonata in 1888, invited him to conduct a program for the Lower Rhine Festival to be held in Düsseldorf in May. The program was to be Liszt’s Faust Symphony and Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius. Elgar and his wife were in attendance, and all concerns that Strauss had spent too much time on the Liszt at the expense of the oratorio evaporated with Strauss’ impassioned toast, which also heralded the beginning of a warm friendship between the two composers that would span decades.
Although Strauss and Elgar had met for the first time in 1897, the years after 1902 were marked by many visits by the Elgars to the Strauss home in Garmisch, and reunions in England at the home of their mutual friend Edward Speyer. While letters between the two composers are sparse because of the language barrier, certain passages reflect their mutual regard. Following the first performance in England of Ein Heldenleben with Strauss conducting, Elgar wrote: “ Dear Friend, Richard Coeur de Lion! Ein Held!...I must tell you…how tremendously I felt your music & how I rejoiced to see & hear how the audience appreciated your gigantic work & your genius…” signing it, “With the greatest esteem, Your sincere friend Edward Elgar.” Apparently Strauss had rushed over to Elgar following the performance and asked in German whether his “Dear Friend” was pleased. Following World War I, Elgar was able to extend his hospitality to his old friend, inviting him in 1922 to a gathering in London of England’s musical elite in his honor. Strauss’ closing words to a short note in German speak to the depth of their relationship: “Your unchanging devoted admirer, Richard Strauss” It is not surprising that Elgar’s Enigma Variations was one of Strauss’ favorite pieces to conduct.
These two violin sonatas represent two entirely different points in a composer’s creative chronology, the Strauss work being composed at the beginning of his career with his greatest works still to come, and Elgar’s sonata written towards the end of his compositional life.
Elgar composed his Violin Sonata in 1918 while staying in the countryside at “Brinkwells,” his cottage in Sussex. At this point in his life he had already composed his major autobiographical works, including the Violin Concerto and the Second Symphony. In fact, the only major orchestral work to follow was the Cello Concerto. Elgar’s three major chamber works, the Violin Sonata, the String Quartet and the Piano Quintet were all written during what Elgar described as “a rabid attack of writing music.” It is clear that his music at this time was highly influenced by nature. Reference has been made to a very famous copse of trees in nearby Flexham Park. As legend had it, it was a group of Spanish monks who was practicing dark magic and turned into trees. While the first movement of the sonata is markedly Brahmsian, the second movement, Romance, was described by Elgar’s wife as “wonderful new music, different from any thing else of his. A. (Algernon Blackwood) calls it wood magic, so elusive & delicate.” It may have been their friend Blackwood, author of adventure and ghost stories, who associated the copse with the Spanish monks. Certainly the opening of the movement is unmistakably Spanish in nature, and haunting as well. Even Elgar himself marveled at his creation, describing it as “a fantastic curious movement with a very expressive middle section: a melody for the Violin—they say it’s as good as or better than anything I have done in the expressive way….” The third movement, “very broad and soothing like the last movement of the Second Symphony,” features a reminiscence of this expressive melody as “a wonderful soft lament.”
The Sonata was to be dedicated to a dear friend of the Elgars, Marie Joshua, who sadly died before the piece was completed. In the first edition the cryptic inscription, M.J. – 1918 marked the top of the page, but was later omitted. Elgar himself seemed well pleased with the work, which he judged to be “concise & clear & passionate.”
In stark contrast, Richard Strauss was in his early 20s, serving as the Third Conductor of the Munich Court Opera, when he started work on his violin sonata in 1887. This is considered to be his last work utilizing the older classical forms that were part of his deeply conservative musical upbringing, and also his final chamber work. Full of the romantic exuberance of youth, the outer movements foreshadow the symphonic works of his future in their energy and harmonic richness. That Strauss anticipates the declamatory, operatic phrasing of Der Rosenkavalier is unsurprising for during this time he also fell madly in love with the soprano Pauline de Ahna who was later to become his wife. In the slow movement of the sonata, Improvisation, he treats the violinist like a Lieder singer and makes reference to Schubert’s Erlkönig. The orchestral textures of the third movement – with its main theme which anticipates Don Juan (1888) – give way to a sparkling coda displaying a whimsical sense of chromatic modulation. Careful listeners may also detect a quote from Tristan, which Strauss described as “the most beautiful bel canto opera.” The Sonata was completed on 1 Nov 1887 and dedicated to his cousin Robert Pschorr. The first performance given in 1888 featured Robert Heckman as the violinist, and at the piano, Julius Buths, who was to be instrumental in bringing Elgar and Strauss together.
Many biographers have noted the parallels between the two composers despite their different origins. Neither attended a music college or conservatory. Both of their wives, deeply influential in their lives, were daughters of generals. Both composers demonstrated a mastery of orchestral color and incorporated autobiographical elements into their music. Both worked on a Ben Jonson opera—Elgar’s unfinished The Spanish Lady, and Strauss’ Die schweigsame Frau. Both visited the United States and traveled by air for the first time in their old age. Both men were conductors as well as composers who realized the importance of the emerging recording industry.
Most importantly, each thought of music making as a natural part of life.
Surely these are the words of kindred souls!