Giovanni Battista Viotti-Suonata

Posted on October 20th, 2011 by


Giovanni Battista Viotti playing chamber music. Anonymous watercolour. UK ca/1815-1824-Private Collection.

Giovanni Battista Viotti-Suonata

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Suonata: coll’accompagnamento d’un basso per esser ambedue parti suonate par un violino solo
Live Performance. Peter Sheppard Skaerved-Stradivari ‘Betts’
Library of Congress, Washington DC
May 9th 2009

The violinists of the revolutionary generation produced a large number of works for solo violin without basso continuo or chamber accompaniment. They provided the impetus for the composition of the studies and caprices which accompanied the various méthodes. These solo works have been ignored in the last hundred years, resulting in a curious disjunct, and the birth of an idea that, between Bach and Bartók, there were no really serious works written for the violin alone
Viotti’s Suonata: coll’accompagnamento d’un basso per esser ambedue parti suonate par un violino solo is in three movements. The first functions as a big-boned prelude to the second, a two part fugue. This is followed by a miniature march. The structure of the complete work is extraordinary, as the outer movements, which are both in D major, are dwarfed by the large scale fugue, which is in D minor. This fugue itself is Bach-ian, in more ways than one, and begs the question as to whether Viotti was familiar with Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas. It is clearly based on the melodic material from Bach’s unfinished masterpiece, the Art of Fugue and is also in the same key.
There was increasing awareness in post-revolutionary Paris of the importance of baroque chamber works. Antoine Reicha (1770-1836) wrote of the solo violin works of Bach and various other baroque composers in the treatise that prefaces his brilliant and innovatory 12 Duos for violin and cello. These duos provide an inventory of the chamber techniques and musical styles current in Paris in 1814, the year of its publication, and certainly stray far beyond the ‘sight-readable’.
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)came to study with Pierre Baillot in 1816; perhaps his enthusiasm for Bach, was in some way stimulated by the seriousness with which pedagogues and contrapuntalists treated his music in the French capital. Returning as a 16 year old nine years later, he appalled his sister Fanny (1805-1847) by suggesting that he was “trying to teach Onslow and Reicha to love Beethoven and Sebastian Bach.”
Bach’s Art of Fugue that the young Mendelssohn, perhaps influenced by his encounter with the Parisian theorists, would transfigure into the second movement of his String Symphony No.9, which was written four years after his first encounter with the Parisian musical world. Mendelssohn’s later enthusiasm for Bach was in some way stimulated by the seriousness with which the Parisian pedagogues and contrapuntalists treated such material. Returning as a 16 year -old nine years after his first visit in 1816, he appalled his sister Fanny by suggesting that he was “trying to teach Onslow and Reicha to love Beethoven and Sebastian Bach.
Far from being unknown in the early 19th century, Bach’s solo violin works were studied and appreciated, if not heard, like many ‘unaccompanied’ works, on the concert platform. However, it would take the advent of Paganini in 1831, to reintroduce solo string playing to public. So it is hardly surprising that solo Bach had absent from the concert stage. In fact, Baillot noted that “the study of chords has been too neglected”, so “we have put exercises…in order to make more familiar one of the most beautiful effects of the violin-chords-and to put students more quickly into condition to perform all the fugues and sonatas of Corelli, Tartini, and Geminiani, and the Sonatas of [Johann] Sebastian Bach. Bach’s Fugue in C major….would in itself demand that the student apply himself to this type of study into order to succeed in rendering all its beauties.”
However, the technical disposition of the Fugue makes no attempt whatsoever to utilise the contrapuntal techniques utilised in the three fugues that figure in Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas. But this was perhaps unsurprising. Viotti was writing in the modern style, and little of the solo music of his period makes any use of the complex voice-leading and contrapuntal felicities brought to such a high point by Bach and Telemann. Like the solo works by his French-based contemporaries, Lorenziti, Bruni, and Michel Woldemar, many of which are predominately in two parts, Viotti tends to use similar motion and to avoid explicit or implied bass-lines. In this, he seems to be following the example set by his teacher, Tartini, who put into practice his discovery that close two-part writing will produce low resultant tones, which as L’Art du Violon reveals, can, and should be used as bass lines.
Viotti’s Suonata betrays his affinity with the 26 Piccole Sonate a Violino solo which his inspiration Giuseppe Tartini (1692-1770) sent to the Court Chamberlain of King Frederick the Great, the philosopher Count Algarotti (1712-1764), in February 1750. These are variously scored for violin alone and violino e violoncello o cembalo. However Tartini himself noted in the accompanying letter to the Sonatas, the cello part was there as a formality: “I have played these without bassetto, and that is my true intention.” Tartini’s increasing fascination with the resultant tones of two lines played in double stops led to burgeoning notion of the violin as sufficient unto itself. Naturally, this manner of writing stood at a sharp angle to Bach’s solo works, but certainly had a greater impact on the following generation; indeed, Baillot specifically recommends it in L’Art du Violon, suggesting that the effect of the resultant tones can be enhanced through the agent of “a key of about 4 à 5 pouces (ca. 11-13 cm)” on the belly of the violin.
The construction of Viotti’s Suonata also reflects Tartini’s Piccole Sonate; in a number of ways, this can be read as evoking his master’s style and ideals. The outer two movements are essentially military, both dominated by dotted rhythms, both essentially marches. It has been observed many times that the most tangible musical gift which was offered by the age of revolution was just the military tone. Viotti’s two outer movements might be read as gentle parody of this, the first drawing a connection between the archness of a baroque overture, the second, affectionately littered with ‘scotch snaps’, offering a gentle, almost domestic alternative to the sound and fury of the first, almost more akin to the ‘farewell’ march played at the end of a Mozart ‘serenade’.
Another violinist who produced ‘duos for solo violin’ was Antonio Bartolomeo Bruni (1759-1823), like Viotti, a pupil of Pugnani, and a mason, a member of the ‘Loge Olympique’. In 1789, Bruni was leading of the orchestra of the Théâtre Monsieur, and upon Viotti’s departure in 1792, took over the musical direction of the theatre, but proved so ineffectual in this post, that he was compelled to resign, upon which his place was taken by Tartini’s student, Pierre La Houssaye (1735-1818), who shared the duties with Giuseppe Puppo (1749-1827), who had lived in London until 1784. He was however, more successful as an operatic composer, and no fewer than twenty-one of his stage pieces were produced between 1786 and 1815.

Antonio Bartolomeo Bruni (1759-1823) was leader of the orchestra at the Théâtre Monsieur , and produced a series of ‘duos’ for solo violin.

Perhaps the composition of Niccolò Paganini’s (1782-1840) Sonata a violino solo, better known as Duo Merveille for solo violin was as a result of the French vogue for such two part solo works. This was written in 1805, whilst he was in service to Napoleon’s sister Elisa Baciocchi (1777-1820), in Lucca, and was in constant touch with the latest French trends.
Although the revolutionary generation clearly had the technical know-how to write in more than two parts, it is clear that this basic virtuoso stunt, which could not only easily be communicated to an audience, but around which there was certain idealism. After all, the music cult that emerged from the generation of Rousseau and Gluck was one of simplicity celebrated. Even though the revolution sought to place music, on the largest scale possible, at the centre of public life, of public events, this was matched by a corresponding clarification of material, and egalitarian use of technical means, which sought to render music less exclusive.

In 1821 Viotti presented a revised version of the central Allegro, the fugue, to his oldest friend, Luigi Cherubini. The manuscript of Viotti’s Fugue for solo violin is now in the Pierpont Morgan library in New York. This bears dedication to Cherubini, couched as an ‘unworthy’ tribute to a life long friendship. Perhaps this also manifests a guilty frustration on Viotti’s part, that, at the end of his life, he was unable to do more than copy out and slightly adjust, the middle movement of his unknown 1799 Suonata for solo violin for his friend.
In 1819, Viotti offended Cherubini by taking the post at the Opéra; this troubled him considerably. On the 5th November, that year, he wrote: “I cannot help feeling extremely troubled at having been the rival of a friend whom I love, a afriend whose genius I have always respected and admired, and of someone, whnom I shall always love, whatever may be the chages which may operate in his heart.” Perhaps he offered the Duetto (an excised and reworked fugue from his Suonata for solo violin) the following March, as an ‘unworthy’ peace offering. The Pierpont Morgan manuscript is dated, 15th March 1821. In 1824, Cherubini made a copy of this for Pierre Baillot. It seems that he was stimulated by reading Baillot’s ‘Notice sur G.B. Viotti’ to reveal to him the existence of the ‘Duetto a un violino solo’. In 1827, he made a copy of the movement and gave it to Baillot.