Boosey & Hawkes, 1937
Donald Scotts and Mary Nemet, 1981.
Available as MP3
files only - here
Sonata for Two Violins R53
Allegro non troppo
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."
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