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"Anxiety of Influence"

         April 29th, 2016

         Famously, Igor Stravinsky once remarked, “A good composer does not imitate; he steals.” The conversation regarding musical influences has long been a hot topic among scholars, performers and so-called lieb-haber.  However, one finds that the thread of musical influence extends beyond time and history, making it difficult to draw a linear connection between composers. In other words, whether or not they admit to their musical influences, composers have always been composing (as the word literally means, com-pose), i.e. rearranging or further developing existing materials. The connection is more obvious when teacher-pupil composers are paired, as one sees the “network” of influence--not just the way the teacher influences the student, but also the influences from other art forms, other pieces of music, and even the aesthetic preferences of the time.

       In this recital, I will be presenting four pieces by two pairs of teacher-pupil composers: violin sonatas by two Bostonian composers Walter Piston and Irving Fine, Légende by Wieniawski and the grand violin duo sonata by Ysaÿe.


        The first time I encountered the name Walter Piston was during my first doctoral theory seminar at New England Conservatory, where his counterpoint book appeared under “recommended course material.” Little did I know that I would be learning an actual composition by him a year later. Piston (1894-1976) bounced between visual arts and music before finally deciding to study composition at the Harvard College in 1920. He studied composition and counterpoint with Nadia Boulanger and Paul Dukas in Paris, and he also studied violin with George Enescu. After returning to the United States in 1926, he taught at Harvard until his retirement in 1960. Piston is noted for his influence in the development of the Neo-classical style in 20th century in the United States. His students included Leonard Bernstein, Elliott Carter, Harold Shapero and Irving Fine. His influential status in the 20th century was summarized by Aaron Copland: “Piston's music, if considered only from a technical viewpoint, constitutes a challenge to every other American composer...Without men like Piston, without his ease and ability in the handling of normal musical materials, we can never have a full-fledged school of composers in this country.”

       Piston’s Violin Sonata (1939) has three movements: Moderato, Andantino quasi Adagio, and Allegro. Upon listening, one notices that the role of piano and violin are extremely equal, and the two parts are often in canon or an imitation of some sort. The fluid melodic theme in the first movement is juxtaposed with the highly syncopated runs and the Copland-like ⅝ rhythmic figure. The restless first movement (perhaps also caused by constant meter change?)  is followed by a slow, quiet and searching (or longing) theme in the second movement in 5/4: this uncertain searching theme builds upon an  A-B-A form where it hits the climax in the middle and falls back down to the opening melody. The last movement starts with rigid rhythm and articulation in both parts; throughout the piece Piston favors the perfect fourth interval, and the main motive of the last movement is conducted by a perfect fourth with its neighbor notes (B♭-A♭-D♭-E♭). This motivic figure then appears throughout the movement. Based on the harmonic language and structure of the piece, I do find it difficult to categorize Walter Piston’s violin sonata under any genre or style, though I do agree that it could be seen as a hybrid of neoclassical and neo-romantic style. One is reminded of Copland and even Ives at times.

     When I learned that Irving Fine (1914-1962) was born in Boston and died in Natick, I felt instantly closer to him, for I spent three years of high school in Natick and the rest of my American life in Boston, though unlike Fine, I did not get my bachelor and master degrees from the Harvard University (where he studied with Piston).

        Despite the fact that Piston’s sonata was written years before Fine’s violin sonata (1946), Fine’s sonata seems more accessible due to its tonal language and its simplicity. Fine himself admitted to its simplicity in his letter to Aaron Copland in the same year: “[The violin sonata] has a cloying prettiness which I delude myself into thinking is depth and passion. There are shades of Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Brahms and a few live snatches of Stravinsky, Copland and Shapero.” Later in 1958, Fine stated that the sonata was strongly influenced by his contemporaries Stravinsky and Copland; however, he insisted that there were indefinable personal qualities in the sonata which made it unique.


     The violin sonata consists of three movements, and the violin and piano, like in Piston’s violin sonata, are quite equal. The first movement (Moderato; Allegro Moderato; Giusto) is in sonata form, starting with a poetic violin introduction, which leads into further development of the thematic material in the faster section. The allegro section is highly syncopated, filled with contrasting short rhythmic figures and lyrical passages, which is then interrupted by a stormy fugue. The movement ends with a sparkling and lively coda. The structure of the lyrical middle movement (Lento con moto) is more ambiguous. The first section includes two melodic themes played simultaneously in piano and violin, and throughout the movement the two instruments create “imitative polyphony”. To me, the movement could loosely be defined as  A-B-A’, where the lyrical but harmonically static melody is interrupted by the violent B section, but finally wanders its way back to the opening theme. According to Fine, the third movement (Vivo) is “more bravura in character.” Fine juxtaposes highly compact rhythmic figures and singing melodies. The work ends with an abrupt coda that must have been intended to shock the audience and might elicit a gasp.

           The violin sonatas of Fine (1946)  and Piston (1939) are very similar in construction though very different in effect. One hears hints of Aaron Copland in both pieces (not surprisingly, both composers were Copland’s friends), but Piston’s sonata is much more complex and structured than Fine’s. Besides showcasing how different they are, I chose to perform both pieces because they are extremely underplayed. I love Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Faure and Franck, but as a violinist living in the 21st century, I also enjoy the process of looking for new color and extending the short history and limited geography of violin sonata repertoire.

          The second pair of teacher-pupil composers are Henryk Wieniawski (1835-1880) and Eugène Ysaÿe (1858-1931). They were both violin virtuosos, educators and composers. Since their backgrounds are more familiar to the audience than those of Piston and Fine, I will simply say that both Wieniawski and Ysaÿe are two of the most influential violinists throughout the western music history alongside with Niccolò Paganini and Joseph Joachim. Ysaÿe studied with Wieniawski when he was only twelve: at the time Wieniawski was the assistant of violinist/composer Henri Vieuxtemps. Légende is a delightful short piece by Wieniawski, estimated to have been composed around 1860 in order to secure his marriage to Isabella Hampton. The exact date of composition is unknown. The piece starts in g minor, loosely following an ABA’ form. In contrast to the longing sentimental A section, the B section goes to its parallel major, followed by an outbreak and return to the A’ theme.

         Eugène Ysaÿe’s sonata for two violins (1915) is probably the most challenging piece in this evening’s program. One of my teachers, Mr. Buswell, once joked that this sonata sounds like a high-speed train going through a Japanese garden. There is so much detail that it takes tremendous effort for both violinists to make the sonority transparent so the audience can not only be impressed by all the firework effects, but also notice all the special color Ysaÿe carefully planned. This three-movement sonata for two violins is structurally and harmonically so rich that at some point one might assume that they’re hearing a performance by a string quartet. Ysaÿe’s sonata for two violins reflects not only his studies with Wieniawski (and Vieuxtemps), but also how he developed a distinctive voice and tonal palette. This would later be demonstrated to great success in his Op. 27 Solo Sonatas.