Virtuosic Violin

Fiona Khuong-Huu, violin
David Danzmayr, conductor

About the Music

Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953): Symphony No. 1 in D Major, Op. 25, “Classical”
Instrumentation: Scored for pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns and trumpets, timpani, and strings
Composed: 1917
Duration: 15 minutes

In the summer of 1917, during Petrograd’s February Revolution, Russian-born Sergei Sergeyevich Prokofiev packed his bags and fled to the countryside. Once safe from the violence of the city streets, he took up a project: compose a work in the classical style but without the aid of a piano. Working without a keyboard would push Prokofiev, for the instrument was his instrument. He had already achieved notoriety on account of his earlier piano concertos, fiendishly difficult and bracingly dissonant works. His intent now was to mimic the symphonic style of Haydn and Mozart, but to infuse his score with personal, 20th century elements—off-kilter harmonies, unexpected phrasing, and the like. For good measure, he then added the moniker “Classical,” and it stuck.

Rooted firmly in the bright key of D major, Prokofiev’s first numbered symphony follows predictable pathways, particularly its four-movement architecture (fast-slow-medium-fast) and the structures within. Yet there are quirky characteristics along the way, several of which are worth pointing out. There is the composer’s penchant for quickly shifting ideas. Rather than giving over his themes to a single instrument or family, Prokofiev often breaks up the instrumentation, creating kaleidoscopic color and interest. Accompanimental gestures, which would have been left to the lower strings and bassoon in the 18th century, are now also divided up among the entire band. Thus, harmonic and rhythmic timekeepers appear and disappear like a jack-in-the-box. And instead of modulating subtly from one key to another, as Mozart would have done, Prokofiev often simply steps up or down into a new key without preparation, resulting in charming harmonic jolts.

One more thing: as opposed to the incorporation of an elegant triple-meter minuet, the stately dance of the nobility that Haydn and Mozart nearly always included in their four-movement symphonic architecture, Prokofiev winkingly writes a Gavotte, an earthy, duple-time French folk dance from the Baroque era. The result is incomparably charming music, and if not entirely typical of this Russian master, the score has nonetheless remained among his most beloved.


Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921): Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso in A Minor, Op. 28
Instrumentation: Scored for solo violin, pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns and trumpets, timpani, and strings
Composed: 1863
Duration: 10 minutes

Despite living eighty-six years and well into the 20th century, Camille Saint-Saëns remained content to craft stirring melodies and set them within traditional, tonal harmonies. Not for him were the decadent notions of the younger generation, he noted later in life. Instead, he strove for balance, symmetry, and clarity and in the end was, without doubt, among the most gifted composers on the European continent. Saint-Saëns composed within every genre of the age and then some, as evidenced by his popular Carnival of the Animals. He wrote splendidly for every instrument of the orchestra, the piano and organ (he was a virtuoso of both), and voice.

The Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso was composed in 1863 for the great Spanish violinist Pablo de Sarasate, who gave the work its premiere. Despite having written a handful of full-fledged violin concertos, this nine-minute work has remained the composer’s most popular concertante composition, and for good reason. The moving, melancholic introduction and the dazzling rondo that follows, with its Spanish swagger and rousing coda, never fail to electrify.


Maurice Ravel (1875-1937): Tzigane, Concert Rhapsody for Violin and Orchestra
Instrumentation: Scored for pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons and horns, trumpet, harp, celeste, percussion, and strings
Composed: 1924
Duration: 10 minutes

Paris in the 1920’s—what better place on earth to experience the avant-garde world of art, literature, and music? Everyone worth hearing, watching, or reading was here. In Paris, Picasso collaborated with Sergei Diaghilev and the Ballet Russe, Ernest Hemmingway penned The Sun also Rises and drank with James Joyce (who put the final touches on Ulysses not long after his arrival in the French capital), George Gershwin wrote An American in Paris, dancer Josephine Baker worked her cabaret magic, and Salvador Dalí twirled his iconic spaghetti mustache. It was also a period of great exoticism, of western artists trying to capture the essence of foreign lands, peoples, and sounds in their work. This was the period of Ravel’s Tzigane.

“Tzigane” translates to gypsy (who today are referred to as Romani) and although Ravel didn’t infuse his score with any authentic Romani melodies, it nevertheless breathes the air of these nomadic people. Tzigane, for Ravel, meant a certain style or color and creating color is what Ravel did best. His rhapsody begins with a darkly sensuous violin cadenza of an improvisational character before the orchestra joins for a fluid series of dances, some impassioned, others frenetic. Ravel’s writing is brilliant throughout and the balance between forces is absolutely exquisite.

This single-movement, ten-minute work was written for—and received its 1924 premiere by—the Hungarian virtuoso Jelly d’Arányi, great niece of the esteemed violinist Joseph Joachim. Ravel’s violinistic fireworks left little doubt about her abilities. Though originally composed for violin and piano, Ravel’s subsequent orchestration all but ensured that this latter version of the work would become a favorite of soloists and orchestras alike.


Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809): Symphony No. 104 in D Major, “London”
Instrumentation: Scored for pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns and trumpets, timpani, and strings
Composed: 1795
Duration: 29 minutes

When, on New Year’s Day of 1791, Haydn stepped off the ferry from Calais and onto British soil, it symbolized the end of one significant musical journey and the start of another. The physical journey to England had been short, by comparison. Fifteen days earlier Haydn had bid farewell to his friends in Vienna—Mozart among them—and boarded a coach in the company of Johann Salomon. The German-born impresario had convinced Haydn to travel to England, where his music was certain to be enthusiastically received. Now, having traversed open water for the first time in his life, Haydn soon entered London, embarking on a new adventure as a man recently freed from three decades of musical servitude.

Until this point, Franz Joseph Haydn had spent the bulk of his career in the service of the immensely wealthy Esterhàzy family, composing, conducting, teaching, organizing, and doing pretty much everything else musical life in the palace required. If the prince wanted an opera performance next month to better entertain visiting royalty, or to play duets with his kapellmeister, Haydn made it happen. For years, Haydn had no concern about his next meal or whether or not his music would be performed, and for better or worse, he himself stated that being shut off in the country forced him to become original. But enough was enough. So, when Haydn’s employer died and Salomon came calling, Haydn jumped at the opportunity to travel.

So successful was his first journey to London that several years later, Haydn returned. During both visits Haydn brought out a string of new symphonies for Salomon’s public concert series, and his English listeners couldn’t get enough. It was in 1795, during this second visit to the British capital, that Haydn’s crowning orchestral masterwork, his 104th and final symphony, was penned. Like all the previous concerts, the premiere was a rousing success. Reflecting on the evening, Haydn said, “The entire company was thoroughly pleased and so was I. I earned 4,000 gulden on this evening: such a thing is only possible in England.”

With his newfound English audiences in mind, Haydn delivered decades worth of experimentation. The curtain opens with a slow, D minor introduction, the orchestra (including timpani) intoning a solemn statement that seems to declare, “You are about to embark upon the greatest symphony yet composed!” And then, as if it has all been in jest, Haydn ushers in his Allegro with a buoyant, joyful D major theme. Curiously, rather than transition to a second, contrasting theme, in keeping with standard sonata-form architecture, Haydn sticks with this principal theme for the entire movement, putting his material through its paces and revealing his profound and time-tested understanding of motivic developmental procedures.

The Andante again largely relies on a single idea, a gently rocking theme initially ushered in by the strings and then later joined by the winds. Contrasting moods are achieved by abrupt changes of key and character, including an explosive passage in the minor mode that gives way to a brilliant series of virtuosic violin string crossings. This is followed by a festive Minuet that evokes the glittering Hapsburg palace ballrooms of Vienna (was Haydn homesick?). Always the jokester, Haydn ribs us with sudden violin stabs that seem to end in mid-phrase. The contrasting trio takes us for a leisurely stroll beyond the city walls and into the countryside, as violins, flutes, and bassoons perform a country dance, accompanied by a simple string pizzicato.

The effervescent finale, the score’s pièce de résistance, again recalls the countryside, now by way of a drone bass line mimicking the bagpipes. Throughout this rollicking sonata-form movement, Haydn pulls out all his tricks, including dazzling orchestration, an extended development section—illustrating Haydn’s inexhaustible powers of invention—and sophisticated, if seemingly effortless, counterpoint. The score remains no less thrilling today than when the Londoners heard it for the first time and one can almost see a smiling Haydn, stepping from the podium and into the arms of the waiting impresario. Salomon, too, must have been all smiles in response.

© Marc Moskovitz