Playing violin unaccompanied is the most exposed sort of music-making, with a vulnerability that is both technical and emotional. Its music seems to bring out a personal quality in composers that one doesn’t always get from music for large forces. The purity of the medium and its limitations call forth a challenge to the composer to be met with ingenuity and imagination.

“Is it not strange that sheep’s guts could hale souls out of men’s bodies?”

—William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing

I have been involved for a long time with the classical violin, as a student and then as a sometime performer. Yet even those of us who are closely wedded to the violin tend to take it for granted; we don’t often stop to think why it has been central to the Western musical experience for four hundred years, or what are the precise qualities that contribute to its power and appeal.

In its essence, the violin is a sounding box for strings put in vibration by a bow. What makes the violin so singularly expressive is the variety of touch and tonal inflection possible with the bow, put in motion by the right arm. The bow is truly the “soul” of the violin, its primary means of expression. The fact that the violin has a greater variety of timbre and a wider dynamic range than almost any other instrument means that it wears very well on the ears. Provided it is played well, one doesn’t get tired of listening to the violin over long intervals, as one might tire of a flute or trumpet. Although most of what I am saying applies to all the instruments of the string family (including viola and cello), the violin’s higher and more penetrating sound has made it preeminent and indispensable.

One advantage of keyboard instruments like the piano and organ and plucked instruments like the guitar is their ability to handle multiple musical lines. The violin is basically a melody instrument and cannot play harmony or counterpoint. Yet through a miracle of skill and imagination, composers have challenged this limitation. The tradition of music for solo (unaccompanied) violin began in the middle of the 1600s with such German violinist-composers as Thomas Baltzar, Heinrich Biber, and Johann Paul Westhoff. They discovered that the violin can create a stunning illusion of polyphony through rolled chords, arpeggios, and alternating fragments of melody in different registers. The violin could become an orchestra unto itself. Folk fiddlers had always known this—on the dance floor, Norwegian players of the Hardanger fiddle would wail out a melody on the top two strings and “accompany” themselves with chords on the bottom strings.

This brings up a little appreciated point, the kinship of Baroque violin music with country fiddle music. Before it became the genteel thing it is today, the violin was considered rather unrefined, a shrill instrument best suited to the tavern or town square. Yet the violin’s brighter and stronger sound ensured its ascendancy over its more aristocratic cousin, the viola da gamba. German violinist-composers refined the violin’s folk qualities and created music in which magnificent architecture seems to be built out of silence. One observer said that Baltzar could make the violin sound like “a full consort” of instruments, while Biber in his Passacaglia of c. 1676 created a mesmerizing series of variations on a series of four descending notes.

Johann Sebastian Bach absorbed these influences and raised them to an exalted level in his Six Solos for violin without bass, grouped into three sonatas and three “partitas” (suites of dances). Reflecting his conviction that “everything must be possible,” Bach creates in these pieces a finished musical texture using just the four strings of the violin, even going so far as to write “fugues” with complex contrapuntal procedures simplified to their essentials. It’s an amazing conceptual feat; but apart from that, the Six Solos create a spiritual aura of solitude that make them unique for both performer and listener.

The violinist Andrew Manze has pointed out that the Italian title Bach gave the collection, Sei solo, might well have a double meaning: “Six solos” and “You are alone.” In 1720, the year Bach completed the set, his first wife Maria Barbara died. Although it’s only conjecture, it could be that Bach wanted the violinist playing these pieces to feel as he did, setting out on an immense journey alone in the world armed only his own resources and imagination. Certainly, for the violinist the Six Solos are a constant life’s companion, and one’s playing of them matures through the years.

Yet it’s my belief that the Six Solos have grown too monumental, too much like rituals dutifully carried out. To me they are essentially light music, with a strong basis in folk fiddling and improvisation—one could very well play the delightful Third Partita at a country fair. Individual movements can and should be excerpted and performed alongside the solo violin music that preceded and influenced it, helping us see Bach in historical context.

Partly for that reason, delving into rare unaccompanied violin repertoire has become a special interest of mine. One of the attractions of this medium is its portability—all you need is yourself and your violin. Then too, it possesses an intimate, confessional quality, as if one is communing with the audience (or with yourself, if no audience is present). Playing solo is the most exposed sort of music-making, with a vulnerability that is both technical (will I hit that high note on the mark?) and emotional.

Fortunately, the repertoire beyond Bach is studded with gems. I have enjoyed the 12 Fantasias of Georg Philipp Telemann and the Assaggi (essays) of the Swedish composer Johan Helmich Roman, fantastical monologues that portray many moods and characters. Another treasure trove are the many Piccole sonate (little sonatas) that Giuseppe Tartini scrawled in manuscripts in his later years and left unpublished. Tartini concentrates more on the charm of a single melody than on counterpoint, and his tiny movements hauntingly recall the folk music of northeast Italy.

In exploring this body of music, I am fortunate in having come in contact with the Baroque violin, with its catgut strings and curved bow. Returning to this “authentic” way of playing has made me aware of the violin’s history in a special way. The violin has become somewhat denatured in modern times with the creation of synthetic strings and the addition of paraphernalia (like the shoulder rest) that distances the player from the instrument. Gut strings have an extra vulnerability, their sensitivity to weather and temperature well compensated by a subtle range of tone colors. The buoyancy of the early bow truly brings out the dance-like quality of this music.

After Niccolò Paganini’s grandstanding Caprices (1817), unaccompanied violin music languished for a time. It was left to the twentieth century, and two composers in particular, to pick up the thread. In 1924 Eugène Ysaÿe, the eminent Belgian violinist and sometime composer, wrote a set of six solo sonatas that are poetically imaginative and require a virtuoso’s technique. This is even more true of the thorny, magnificent Sonata for Solo Violin that Béla Bartók wrote for Yehudi Menuhin during World War II.

Both Ysaÿe and Bartók are aware of the giant shadow cast by Bach, but they take a modern and somewhat playful view of him. Ysaÿe’s Second Sonata humorously interweaves a quotation from the Bach E major Partita with the Gregorian Dies irae chant beloved by the Romantics. Bartók’s sonata was his penultimate work and was premiered by Menuhin at Carnegie Hall in 1944. It is one of the most uncompromising works ever written for the violin, complete with a cubist portrait of a Bach fugue. Bartók and Ysaÿe take the traditions of unaccompanied violin music to something like their outer limits.

Playing the violin is an interplay of many variables: pitch, tone quality, rhythmic coordination. It is up to the violinist to control these variables, and playing completely solo puts this control to the ultimate test. But beyond this, music for unaccompanied violin seems to bring out a personal quality in composers that one doesn’t always get from music for large forces. The purity of the medium and its limitations (the music must be carefully tailored to the instrument) call forth a challenge to the composer to be met with ingenuity and imagination. The violinist, meanwhile, must create a rapt atmosphere of spiritual communion with the audience. When everything works out right, the result is a rare fusion of science and emotion in musical tones.

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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “The Old Violin” (1886) by William Michael Harnett (1848-1892), courtesy of the National Gallery of Art.

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