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Top 10 Greatest Violin Pieces in Classical Music

Published on 9 September 2020 at 14:35

The violin is one of the most played instruments in the world, partly due to the amazing pieces composed for it. To guide you through the best of it, here is a Top 10 of the Greatest Violin Pieces in all of Classical Music.

After the invention of the violin in the 16th century, composers quickly picked up on the amazing versatility with which one can compose music for the instrument. The amount of sheet music written for the violin is truly astounding. It lead to fierce rivalry between composers, trying to think of new ways to compose for the instrument, and only the absolute best withstood the test of time.

Although the violin itself didn't change much after its initial invention, the amount of genres, styles and techniques it brought to life, is quite impressive. Some of the first, currently renowned composers arose during the relatively early stages of the violin, during the Baroque Period. Names like Vivaldi, Handel, Telemann, Bach and Haydn come to mind, and rightly so. They truly revolutionized the way classical music was played and laid the foundation for what we now have. After this, the violin embraced the Classical- and Romantic period which brought about most of the currently played classical repertoire for the violin. Although it's difficult to summarize 500 years of violin compositions, I'll give it my best shot.

1. J.S. Bach -  Chaconne From Partita No. 2 In D Minor 

Bach has always been a major inspiration to classical music in general. It's difficult to imagine what kind of genius you have to be in order to compose pieces with this level of virtuosity, complexity but still, such clear structure.

Over the years, I've heard many people say things similar to "everyone is inherently creative". However, is anyone really creative when you have Bach to compare yourself with? Coming up with something like this when there are so few other composers to take inspiration from is genuinely remarkable. This piece predicted the succes of the violin far in advance which you'll understand when you give it a listen.

2. Beethoven Violin Concerto

It is the piece that laid the foundation for the rest of the violin repetition. Of course we all know the famous concertos by Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn, Bruch, Paganini etc. But this piece is the foundation on which everything is built, like the columns on which the Greek temples all rest.

It may not sound as exciting as other repertoire, but the many scales make it that it's very noticeable if a part is not played perfectly and it contrasts other concertos in the sense that it's more about the beauty than the technical difficulty. This is part of the reason why you should only play this piece when your sound has matured to an exceptional level. It's what you'd expect from a genius composer like Beethoven and it'd be a shame not to put him here.

3. Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto

Tchaikovsky only wrote 1 violin concerto. It seems he had no intention of making another one and therefore put all his inspiration and energy into this one. Whatever the cause, it doesn't get much better than this. What is special about this concerto is that the level of difficulty is below that of Paganini or Sibelius, for example. Yet this is not at all what you might think when you hear the fast octaves, double stops, flying spiccato, tenths, and 4-note chords in all positions. Don't underestimate it, though. Your fingers will be in a world of suffering trying to get the tricky parts, but it's a piece that won't leave your mind after you've given it a listen.

4. Beethoven - (Kreutzer) Sonata No. 9

The sonatas written by Beethoven are renowned to the point where they don't even have to be mentioned anymore. However, to give this piece the honor it deserves, it gets a very respectable 4th place. What makes this piece stand out, is the prominence of the piano. It is said that Beethoven intended to write this piece for the piano with the violin only as an accompaniment. Beethoven therefore speaks of the sonata as for "Klavier und Violine A-Dur". Nevertheless, in the violin repertoire this type of sonata is considered to be one of the violin sonatas because the violin appears to lead the melody. Everything aside, the real art lies within the question-and-answer relationship of the instruments and the amazing harmony it creates.

5. Paganini and Milstein - Paganiniana Variations 

We all know the famous 24th caprice by Paganini. However, Nathan Milstein has made a sublime representation of what Paganini was really about. When you listen carefully, you can pick up traces of Paganini's 6th caprice and his first and second violin concerto.

I should say, it was a very conscious decision to put Hilary's playing here instead of Milstein's. Apart from the sound and video quality, she has such amazing intensity combined with perfect clarity, rhythm, dynamics, intonation etc. to the point where it seems to be subhuman. She does justice to every note she plays, regardless of the difficulty, just like Paganini and Milstein would have wanted. Whether it's her pinky thrills, flying fast octaves, difficult double stops, sul G, tenths, she plays it flawlessly.

6. J.S. Bach - Double Violin Concerto

What makes this piece so special, is how both violins are essentially playing contrasting solo parts (ritornellos) that once combined create a very harmonious new piece. It is one of the most famous works by Bach and it's considered standard repertoire for the average violinist. The recording too, can matter a lot when it comes to the succes of a piece. Yehudi Menuhin and David Oistrakh together have an intensity that suits the piece as if it was meant to be.

7. Sarasate - Zigeunerweisen Op. 20

It is among the most famous works by Sarasate. It has been the inspiration and motivation of many violinists, including myself. Its versatility makes the piece liked by pretty much every violinist. The piece has a very dramatic opening in which the whole orchestra is included. Thereafter, the high notes on the G-string have an unmatched intensity in the tone of the violin. Afterwards, there's a lot of variation on how the theme in the beginning is played, although it stays recognizable with its harrowing emotion.

That's when the spiccato, ricochets and glissando's come in, triggering a sudden feeling of hope and happiness that's there to stay throughout the piece. The emotions displayed at the beginning and the end are total opposites, which makes it such a special piece.

8. Ysaÿe - Sonata No. 3

This piece is renowned for its intensity. It has a reputation of being one of the most difficult pieces written for the violin and falls right into the habit with which Ysaÿe composed his pieces. His compositions stand out in particular, when it comes to making use of changes in tempo which help emphasizing what he wants to get across. Besides the rubato, the way he combines dynamics with technically very challenging left-hand techniques, really sets him apart from the mainstream. The piece is excellent at displaying both the passionate and brutal side of the violin. In a way, it is an all-rounder.

9. Saint-Saëns - Introduction & Rondo Capriccioso

This piece has a beginning that somewhat resembles the 2nd movement of a concerto with a build-up that takes you to the 3th movement. If you were thinking that too, you were quite right. Saint-Saëns actually wrote this rousing part with the intention of making it the 3th movement of his first concerto. Although he changed his mind apparently, it doesn’t take away from the obvious outstanding musical ability with which Saint-Saëns was able to compose it. The virtuosic arpeggios with the chromatic scalar passages are amongst Perlman’s specialties and do full justice to the piece.

10. Tartini - Devil's Trill Sonata

There’s some background to this musical thriller. It is said that Giuseppe Tartini was severely depressed to the point where he wanted to end his own life, because of his financial struggles. The night before he’d commit suicide, he dreamt of the devil telling him that if he would sell his soul to the devil, he’d be made the most famous violinist in the world. Right after, the devil started playing on the violin which impressed mister Tartini so much, that right after he had woken up he tried to recompose it as accurately as possible and this was the result. The legend only makes a piece better and both the legend as well as the performance are very fitting to the composition, which truly makes it a pleasure to listen to.

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Christopher Strachan
15 days ago

Why no Heifetz ?E.G. in Sarasate.