Violin Sonata No.2 in A minor (1917) – John Ireland
II Poco lento quasi adagio
III In tempo moderato – Con brio
‘I am not one of those composers who feels anxious, or indeed able to talk about his own music. Whatever I have to say is said in the music, and if this does not speak for itself, then I have failed.’ So said John Ireland in a programme note about his second Violin Sonata in 1950. This being so, it must have given him immense pleasure to witness the sensation that the first performance caused when Albert Sammons and William Murdoch took to the stage of the Aeolian Hall, London in uniform, on 6 March 1917. Critical acclaim was unanimous, immediate and enthusiastic, and early the following morning (“before I had breakfasted”), the composer found the publisher Winthrop Rogers on his doorstep who “practically tore the manuscript out of my hands!” Their effort was immediately rewarded with the first edition selling out before it could be put on sale. Ireland was made famous overnight and he later remarked that “this was the first and only time any work of mine has met with such an unmistakably enthusiastic reception on its first performance. It would seem that this sonata appeared at just the right, the psychological moment, and that it expressed in music something which everybody was feeling, which, up to that point, had not been embodied in musical sound by an English composer.”
The work begins with a muscular dotted theme in the piano which is immediately whipped into a frenzy by the violin. Much of the first movement is dominated by the chromatic tensions imposed on the melodies by Ireland’s distinctive harmonic language. The only extended period of settled writing appears in the central development section where the main theme is set against pianissimo pedal notes in the piano. Yet even here, the mood remains dark, desolate and uncertain. Ireland waits until the closing bars of the movement before allowing the tense chromaticism to yield to a more clearly defined, unified statement of despair. Rolling surges of syncopated rhythms and harmonic ambiguity sustain the unease through the introduction of the slow movement before a stunningly poignant, dignified, almost regal, melody emerges in the warm key of E-flat major. Appearing at first almost painfully quiet, introverted, yet determined in its progress, the intensity soon builds to a full blooded statement in the piano before subsiding and sliding into both the unrelated key of D-flat major and the lilting rhythms of a compound metre for the central section. This too starts very quietly before building both in dynamic and harmonic complexity to a huge climax before a short violin cadenza returns the music to the opening material. The Finale opens with declamatory gestures taken from the first movement, returning to the dark harmonic language of A minor, but the storm clouds soon clear to allow the mood to brighten significantly in the jovial Con brio section. A playful ‘folk-like’ melody in the violin is paired with oscillating patterns in the piano before a more lyrical, whimsical melody emerges. After a brief return to the stormy opening material, the cheerful key of A major wins out with the jocular theme brining the work to a triumphant close.