Published

Boosey & Hawkes, 1937

Recordings

Donald Scotts and Mary Nemet, 1981.
Available as MP3 files only - here

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Sonata for Two Violins (1930)
R53

Allegro non troppo
Presto
Passacaglia


The elusive score

Moeran's Sonata for Two Violins, written in 1930, is probably the most elusive of his officially published works, yet for the Moeran scholar or historian, it potentially holds the key to his mature compositional style and success. The work has somehow escaped the interest of the record companies, and until very recently potential performers faced great difficulty in finding a score from which to play.

While it is difficult to date precisely a number of works Moeran wrote at the end of the 1920's and start of the 1930's, which does seem clear is that the two chamber works he produced at this time marked the beginning of a new direction for Moeran, and a deliberate attempt to put behind him his Delian roots. In November 1930 he wrote to Peter Warlock:

"...It is an excellent discipline in trying to break away from the much of Delius-like chords, which I have been obsessed with on every occasion I have attempted to compose during the last two years. Perhaps some good has come of being abed and unable to keep running to the keyboard for every bar."

 

MP3 Audio

World premiere recording of the Sonata for Two Violins in high quality digital stereo. Performers as Donald Scotts and Mary Nemet, recorded in Australia in 1981

1 - Allegro non troppo
2 - Presto
3 - Passacaglia

See also
full page item

This is doubly telling: Moeran not only wanted to change his style, but a bad injury kept him in his bed for quite some time, and he was for the first time composing straight from his head to the page. The results in the Sonata for Two Violins and the String Trio are perhaps two of the starkest pieces Moeran ever wrote. I have written elsewhere that I view the String Trio in its final form as an elegy to Warlock. The Sonata for Two Violins predates Warlock's death, and seems to lack some of the despair evident in the Trio.

This apparent of lack emotional weight, exacerbated by the fact that Moeran writes no slow movement, is perhaps also reinforced by the constraints of the instrumentation. It is a highly unusual pairing for this style of music - Geoffrey Self comments "It is the choice of passacaglia for the last movement which perhaps tells us most about Moeran's intention, for this is an academic' form, and a searching test of compositional skill."

I would go one stage further - trying to write in a recognisably Moeran-like style with the exceptionally limited tonal resources of two violins is in itself a 'searching test of compositional skill'. It is a test which Moeran passes admirably, though not without creating quite a tricky work for the players. There is no room for error and no easy ride for either performer, for each part is treated as equal and each note is vital to holding the piece together - and there quite literally aren't enough notes available to create a 'mush of Delius-like chords".


Moeran in the late 1920's

The first movement opens with a jaunty and highly memorable major key folk-like tune, tossed between the two players and developed with a very recognisable Moeran voice. There is much use of echoing between the two players, and they pass through a variety of keys with the material. The movement is written in Sonata form, though the second subject is far harder to discern, as everything appears to grow organically out of the opening. There are typically Moeran moments where the clouds appear to form over the sunny feel, and the mood changes quickly and dramatically more than once.

The second movement is a tricky Presto which Self describes as a Scherzo. Well, perhaps, but it lacks the true Scherzo lightness he was to employ in his Symphony. This movement is, if anything, the dark heart of the work, with the two instruments frequently working harmonically against each other, taking a mournful folk-like melody and skewering it on a series of vicious stabbing pizzicato chords, their atonality only resolving with a surprising major chord ending.

The Passacaglia is superficially quite attractive, its difficulty in playing and timing masked by the apparent ease with which the two parts hold together after the brittleness of the preceding movement. But Geoffrey Self suggests, "In the last movement of the Sonata...the part-writing seems to be without pattern - even aimless on occasion." With the benefit of a recording, of sorts, one can perhaps try and unravel where Moeran is coming from in this movement. He does manage to create a flatness of texture for much of the first half of the movement, the two melodies weaving apparently unstoppably around each other. Yet again we begin with a very folk-like modal minor melody, but one from which the life seems to have been stripped.

As the melody develops and wraps around itself the effect starts to get quite claustrophobic, the harmony starts to mutate, until suddenly strange pizzicato chords break the cycle and the music slows slightly. The mood turns increasingly dark speeding up and becoming increasingly tricky until switching into a double-stopped stately dance that borders on the grotesque. This too jumps out of its skin for a final virtusoso jig to round the piece of with a real flourish.

And the verdict? Well this is Moeran being experimental. It is certainly difficult to write successfully for two unaccompanied violins, and at times one feels he's struggling to find his own voice here. However, repeated listening certainly pays dividends and the music is without doubt rewarding, captivating both in its mutated folk fiddling and genuine invention.

 

 

 

hear the first extract from an historical world premiere recording

©2001 The Worldwide Moeran Database