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Program Notes

Each week, thousands of San Francisco Symphony concert-goers open their programs to read about the drama, the passion, and the inspiration behind the music they’re hearing. You can read our critically acclaimed program notes online one week prior to select concerts.

Edvard Grieg (1843–1907) is nobody’s go-to guy for stout concert works of the Austro-Germanic stripe, pieces with titles such as sonata, symphony, and string quartet. On the whole Grieg shunned those developmental multi-movement affairs so valued by most of his contemporaries; his preferred genres were short piano pieces (sometimes grouped in suites), theatrical music, art songs, and choral works. Consider his copious, and justifiably popular, piano music: yards and reams of Melodies and Album Leaves and Lyric Pieces, but precisely one sonata (early) plus a magnificent Ballade that’s actually a set of variations. There’s a youthful symphony that he didn’t want performed (ever). One string quartet, one cello sonata. He completed one piano concerto, and it’s a repertory stalwart. But that’s about it, other than flotsam and jetsam from a few scuttled projects.

Well, almost. Amazingly enough, Grieg composed three sonatas for violin and piano. Precisely why that should be is worth a bit of commentarial sleuthing. One needn’t hunt very far before a name pops up: Norwegian violinist-composer Ole Bull (1810–1880), a founding father of nationalism in Norwegian music and a critical influence on Grieg’s education and career. It was Bull who discerned the young composer’s promise and prevailed upon the teenaged lad’s parents to ship him off to Leipzig, where he acquired a solid grounding along Mendelssohnian lines. But even more significantly, Bull was an advocate of the hardingfele or ‘Hardanger fiddle,’ a sophisticated folk violin with understrings that provide sympathetic resonance and a flattened bridge that allows much easier playing of double and triple stops. The Hardanger fiddle takes a much wider variety of tunings than the traditional violin, including some targeted for specific musical genres such as the “troll” tuning for matters sinister and/or threatening. Modern audiences have become acquainted with the Hardanger fiddle via the Lord of the Rings movies, in which the instrument provides the sonic sephamore for the plains-dwelling Rohan culture.

The Hardanger fiddle threads through Grieg’s output as an idée fixe of sorts; Hardanger folk tunes make frequent appearances in his work, and the instrument itself (or at least its overall afflatus) shows up in Peer Gynt. Thus we can find in the Hardanger fiddle the genesis not only of Grieg’s atypical bevy of violin sonatas, but also in the effective and idiomatic string writing found in those works.

Grieg was a newlywed when he wrote the Violin Sonata No. 2 in G major, Opus 13, and a happy marriage produced a happy sonata. That said, it isn’t immediately apparent from the get-go that this is going to be such a good-natured affair; the slow introduction is decidedly somber, but that gives way soon enough to a buoyant, folk-infused first movement. The Allegretto tranquillo slow movement, in a three-part form, contrasts an introspective reprise in E minor with calm lyricism in E major. This altogether ingratiating sonata ends with a dancelike finale that interleaves its heel-kicking passagework with a contrasting and sturdy folk-infused theme.

—Scott Foglesong

Scott Foglesong is a Contributing Writer to the San Francisco Symphony program book