The Violin - Show Pieces and Concert Etudes

Show pieces, Concert Etudes, and Caprices, are considered the territory of the violin virtuoso. This repertoire is not for the faint of heart! Much of this music, in fact pretty much all of it was written by violinists in need of beefing recital programs and enticing audiences to marvel at their abilities. Back in the old days (think centuries ago) if you wanted to be a successful touring virtuoso you could't just play music that already existed. Instead, it was in your best interests to compose your own music, create your own image and sound and showcase your strengths and abilities.

A Caprice or Concert Etude is defined as a particularly brilliant instrumental composition evolved from a single technical motive. This technical motive could be something for the left hand like fingered octaves, 10ths, lift hand pizzicato, chords, the use of extremely high positions, dramatic leaps etc. OR they could be for the bow and right hand. Sometimes, in the really high level repertoire they deal with a specific combination of left and right hand technical wizardry.

A show piece was often a character piece, a brief composition based on a well known theme, song or a transcription of a piece not originally composed for the violin.

Centuries ago violinists didn't perform Brahms, Bach, Mozart, Paganini, Vivaldi etc. the way we do now. Entire recitals were not filled with the music of others or music from the past. Violinists wrote music for specific reasons - to teach, to showcase, to self promote, to astonish, and to capture the full potential of the instrument. In this post there will be tons of videos, and recordings, a little bit of lore and some fun stories I've picked up from various masterclasses and teachers. Prepare to indulge in some amazing music and spectacular violin playing!

We will start this conversation in the late 18th century with Paganini. Paganini is one of the most famous violinists to ever live. He was a real trailblazer on the violin and was the first to push the potential of the instrument to the absolute limit (or at least what was considered the limit in his time). In fact, there is a book titled Violin Virtuosos: From Paganini to the 21st Century by Henry Roth that evaluates each violinist, as they compare to Paganini. His basic question is:  Is Paganini the best violinist to ever live? Who is the best violinist of all time? The Bios for each paint a great picture of the variety of personalities, that attain superstardom on the violin. Not all virtuoso violinists were composers as well. In fact, as time goes by fewer and fewer performers compose music - seemingly because they became more and more consumed with the demands of performing.

Niccolò Paganini was a violinist, violist, guitarist, composer and celebrity personality. Originally from Italy, he toured all over Europe as a performer. In my post on the violin concerto I talked briefly about Paganini and his contribution to the concerto genre but here we can expand on that. Paganini had Marfan Syndrome, as did Abraham Lincoln. It is a disease that effects connective tissue in the body. Paganini had long slender fingers and extremely flexible joints, due mostly to his condition and this allowed him to explore the violin in ways that previously had not been explored. Many a virtuoso have anchored their career on their ability to champion the 24 Caprices and some see his music as the pinnacle of all violin repertoire. You can hear Itzhak Perlman play all 24 below.

The 24 Caprices are generally not studied until the student has a firm grasp of the instrument and are often the last Etudes or Caprices that a violinist learns. Sally O'Reilly once said she does not teach these to any student who does not have a high level instrument and bow otherwise it is virtually impossible to play them successfully. 

It is one thing to hear them, it is another to watch them performed - and who better than Heifetz to do the honors?

Paganini also wrote several show pieces that use a well known melody as the theme. Often, the theme is taken from popular operas at the time but occasionally a more popular tune is used instead - like God Save the King

and don't forget Nel cor piu non mi sent - this is definitely one of my favorites.

Paganini had many admirers and probably several admirers who followed him around to see him performances but none so famous as Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst. Rumor has it that Ernst was completely obsessed with Paganini and followed him around, often booking a hotel room right next door or above him to hear him practice and sometimes copy his work. Ernst, also a virtuoso violinist, is considered Paganini's successor, and was said to sometimes book engagements in cities slightly before Paganini in order to perform his plagiarized music before Paganini could. His rather crazy obsessive personality reeked havoc on Paganini driving him to extreme fits of paranoia and secretiveness (perhaps rightly so - how else could you deal with behavior like this?). Nevertheless, Ernst cranked out some show stoppers of his own. Check out Der Erlkönig based on the famous song for voice and piano by Schubert.

or The Last Rose of Summer

Pablo de Sarasate was a Spanish violin virtuoso and composer in the Romantic era. His style really used Spanish dances and songs as a focal point for his virtuosic compositions. Carmen Fantasy, based on the opera by Georges Bizet is one of the most difficult and also most famous of his compositions. It really captures the Spanish flavor and energy of the opera - all on one instrument (with accompaniment of course). The melodies are so well loved and the Spanish flair is remarkably charming on the violin.

Another really great one is Zigeunerweisen (or Gypsy Airs) - although this is not so Spanish. It is Sarasate's attempt at using or copying the popular gypsy music at the time. Although perhaps not very authentic it is still really awesome and remains very popular amongst violinists.

Malagueña is another that I love dearly. You can almost feel the Spanish sunshine oozing out of it.

Henri Vieuxtemps was a Belgian violinist and one of the first proponents of the Franco-Belgian school of violin playing. He was an active teacher, and these days is remembered mostly for his fiendishly difficult concertos. However, there are a few gems in the show piece genre - like Souvenir D'Amerique (can you guess what the song he uses as the theme is?)

Henryk Weiniawski was a contemporary of Vieuxtemps. He was Polish by birth but lived and worked in both Belgium and Russia. He also wrote a number of high level caprices, that have been arranged to include a relatively simple accompaniment line for either piano OR they can be played as violin duets - one violinist works their butt off while the other plays a simplified version of the piano part (hint: basic chordal notes or a bass line). Check out adorable and insanely talented Soo-Been Lee playing this as a solo caprice.

and here it is as a duet

Probably my favorite of Wieniawski's is Légende. It is just so beautiful! 

Fritz Kreisler was an Austrian born violinist who lived from the late 1800s until the mid 20th century. He was famous for his charm, his abundant use of vibrato - which, until Kreisler was used quite sparingly and only for expressive purposes. Kreisler actually did not win several auditions because the jury panel was repulsed by his relentless use of vibrato. My how the times have changed! I don't think I have ever had a lesson in which I was instructed to vibrate less than ALL OF THE TIME! Thanks for that Kreisler.

Kreisler also lived at the dawn of the recording industry. We can see early film of his performances and listen to some rather low quality recordings of his music. Still for sale are albums of Kreisler encores, both as sheet music and audio recordings of character pieces and violin pieces based on well known themes, older music or completely new and original compositions.

and here is a recording of Kreisler playing Kreisler. You can almost hear him smiling while he plays.

Born at the very beginning of the 20th century, Heifetz is considered one of the finest violinists to have ever lived. His technique was out of this world outstanding. People would go to his performances just to see if he would make a mistake. I just couldn't live with that kind of pressure but some people really excel in situations (or entire careers) like this. Even Kreisler admired his performances. Just watching him play is really fascinating- everything looks easy! He barely moves! Even Alexander Technique specialists cherish him and see his posture as the ideal for violinists. Heifetz wrote many short pieces, often transcriptions for the violin, and these collections are still for sale. I have yet to meet a serious teacher who does not own at least one copy of each volume (there are 3). The pieces are fun, challenging and lovable. They are written with the intention of showing off the skill and charm of the performer.

Perhaps the greatest thing about Heifetz is that there are so many recordings and videos of his playing. Just watching him and listening to his playing can serve as an excellent teacher to the aspiring or even seasoned violinist.

and of course.....

And to tie this post together neatly with a bow, I leave you with Paganiniana by Nathan Milstein. A Theme and Variations based on Paganini's 24 Caprices. Milstein took several themes from Paganini's compositions and strung them together into an even harder piece - If that is even possible. 

The Violin - Sonata

The second installment of The Violin class covered the Sonata. A sort of confusing term actually that is used to describe a number of very different things. The word Sonata actually comes from the Italian word Sonare, meaning 'to sound'. It was used to articulate when a piece should be played rather than sung (Cantare was used to indicate 'to sing'). This rather vague beginning meant that pretty much any piece of music NOT sung was a Sonata. It continued on through history to rest its hat as a term that defines the structure of independent movements and the layout of movements in a multi movement work. How confusing!  In this relatively brief diatribe I will try to focus on the Sonata as a multi movement work, and used most often in violin repertoire.


In the Baroque era a sonata was a piece of music for one or two solo instruments and continuo (generally a keyboard instrument of some kind plus an additional string instrument to play the bass notes), or for solo instrument. The trio sonata was written for two solo instruments and continuo and followed all of the same restraints and requirements as the solo sonata. Religion and Court often dictated the type of music needed at any given function and consequently two distinct types of Sonatas sprung to life: the Sonata da Camera and the Sonata da Chiesa. These types were written as trio sonatas, solo sonatas and sonatas for one soloist plus continuo. 

The Sonata da Camera was used specifically for courtly purposes and often, although not always, used popular dance styles as a means of organizing movements. These were composed for secular functions away from the church and the music often reflects that. The Italian composers from the Roman tradition (think Corelli) ordered their sonatas slow-fast-slow and of the sonatas I've heard there is no obvious dance melodies used. In the late Baroque the keyboard parts were fully composed and referred to as obbligato. The following is an example of Locatelli's work. He was very important for many reasons but mainly because he was a student of Corelli's, a virtuoso violinist, he also worked for many years in Amsterdam, a hot spot for printing and publishing in Europe at the time. Consequently his music spread far and wide and influenced many.

The following is the collection of Bach Sonatas for violin and harpsichord. They also do not follow the trend of using dance forms but are far more standard than those of Locatelli. If you have the time, I encourage you to listen to all of them. J.S. Bach was so imaginative and innovative, you can really hear the progress made in the sonata genre. The violin and Harpsichord are treated equally and share material. This really marks a change in approach from soloist and accompaniment to two equal collaborators.

For those wondering why I have not yet included any solo Bach partitas - voila! See below. The Partita No. 3 in E major makes use of popular French Dance types after the opening, ever so famous, Preludio. J.S. Bach really does justice to the genre and the violinist in his solo works. They are just fantastic! Each is very different and with a little research you can find the origins of his influence. I read in my studies that he spent quite a bit of time transcribing works by Vivaldi and you can definitely hear some of that flashy bow work here, particularly in the Preludio. 

The Sonata da Chiesa was written with religious intent and generally opened with a slow first movement, followed by a fugal second movement. Biber (which my autocorrect really wants to change to Bieber) has some crazy music, so so beautiful that isn't played often anymore. Today he is most often remembered for his Rosary Sonatas (also known as Mystery Sonatas), thought to have been written around 1676. They are a series of 16 short sonatas for violin and continuo with a passacaglia for solo violin as the finale that is AWESOME! I really wish it was performed more often. Each of the sonatas has a title related to the Christian Rosary devotion. Biber is important, and although he was quite forgotten for many years his music is demanding and often employs scordatura and other virtuosic techniques. In one of the Rosary Sonatas the A and D Strings are actually crossed below the bridge - crazy!

If you want to skip directly to the Passacaglia then skip to the next video.

J.S. Bach wrote both solo Sonatas and Partitas. The Partitas, as stated previously are secular and dance influenced. His solo Sonatas follow the traditional Sonata da Chiesa model of Slow Introductory movement, followed by a fast fugal movement, the third movement being slow and lyrical and ending with a quick Allegro or Presto movement. I am currently trying to conquer the A minor Sonata (probably my favorite of the 3 solo sonatas) so I thought I would include it here.

And being the enthusiast I am for this stuff I couldn't resist leaving a collection of J.S. Bach's complete Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin. Although they fell into obscurity for some time we can thank Joseph Joachim for rediscovering them and popularizing them. They are now required materials for college auditions, some orchestral auditions and many high level competitions. There is so much to manage as a violinist and as a musician in these works, they are yet another reminder of Bach's greatness.

And discussion of the Baroque violin sonata would be complete without the inclusion of Tartini's 'Devil's Trill' Sonata. This piece supposedly came to him in a dream in which Tartini heard the Devil play the violin and was shocked and amazed by what he heard. He wrote this sonata as an attempt to capture what the Devil played in his dream. I used to think this piece got its nickname from how devilish and wild the trills are to play - it was not until several years later that I heard the story about his dream. The trills sound wicked hard, and they are tricky to play but they sound so Bad-ass (pardon my French). Pretty cool stuff.


The sonata as we know it today took root in the Classical era simultaneously as an organizational method and a genre of music. As a term it was applied to the structure of individual movements and the layout of movements in a multi-movement work. These multi movement works were also known as Divertimento, Serenade and Partita, and sometimes Sonatina was used instead of Sonata to indicate a smaller or shorter sonata or perhaps a less technically demanding piece. The term Sonata was standardized by Haydn in the 1770s and was increasingly used to describe solo keyboard works AND works for keyboard and one solo instrument - often violin or cello. Many of the Sonatas written by Haydn and Mozart are just two movements long, however three movements became standard during the Classical era. Movement order and style from this period (and later) are most often the following; I. Allegro (in sonata form) II. Slow movement of some kind or occasionally a Minuet and Trio OR Theme and Variations III. Allegro or Presto (often in rondo form). The Classical era gave rise to the amateur musician, a person with the means and desire to study an instrument at home for their own pleasure and enjoyment. Many composers were also teachers and wrote music for their students. The sonata was a popular genre because given the guidelines of the genre and use of Sonata form, it was relatively easy to write, and was the ideal type of music for those seeking knowledge and music as amusement in the home. C.P.E Bach was known as the champion of the amateur musician. He wrote 5 sonatas for violin and keyboard. They are more indicative of the early Classical style rather than what we hear in Mozart's music.

The keyboard really comes into its own in the classical era. It is no longer just accompaniment AT ALL. In fact, several composers - Mozart and Beethoven particularly title their works Sonata for Piano and Violin. In the following Mozart Sonata you can see the score - and it really shows how challenging the piano part is. You can hear and see the interplay between instruments really clearly. Both performers must have great skill and command of their instruments to successfully perform these sonatas. Full of grace, character, fire, beauty, motion and lyricism performers must bounce between these states extremely quickly. This is a two movement sonata - the first movement is in Sonata form (how confusing) and the second is a Theme and Variations.


The Romantic era really expanded on what was codified in the Classical era. Composers solidified the use of Sonata form and the use of 3 or 4 movements in a multi movement work. This is also, as with most music for violin, when our great and most loved repertoire was composed. Again, I am going to do my best to refrain from just writing lists but some of these pieces are just THE BEST! What is so great about the violin is the ability to sound so intimate and precious and also so bold and dominating. That is just one of the reasons it finds so much success in so many genres. But maybe I'm biased.

Lets talk about Beethoven - everything always seems to come back to Beethoven. He wrote 10 sonatas for piano and violin and they span a large portion of his composition career (although he sadly did not write any in his late period, after he lost his hearing completely - those would have been wild, and probably extraordinarily difficult). You can hear the Classical nature of his early sonatas and the heroic nature of the Kreutzer Sonata - his longest and most epic. Any Tolstoy fans out there? Tolstoy wrote a story titled 'The Kreutzer Sonata' that centers on this very piece. And the French painter René François painted a work based on the story. Like I said - it always comes back to Beethoven, even for Russian authors and French painters. 

As you can hear from the very beginning this Sonata is beastly difficult! Nothing like a bunch of huge chords for solo violin to get the party started, am I right? A fantastic display of contrast and endurance - Definitely not for the faint of heart! But overwhelmingly for the music lover. The Kreutzer Sonata was composed in 1803 and was premiered by George Bridgewater and even though it was dedicated to the famous violinist Kreutzer, he never actually performed it.

Brahms wrote 3 sonatas for violin and piano and a scherzo movement for a collaborative sonata. Sonata No. 1 Op. 78 in G major is probably the most famous, and my personal favorite. This is another piece that I just love, love, love! Long, luscious melodies dominate the entire work. Written in 1878 it is cyclic, meaning materials are recycled throughout all three movements. Brahms borrows material from his own songs Regenlied and Nachtklang. This Sonata is also nicknamed 'The Rain' Sonata because Regen means Rain in German.

Another extremely important violin sonata is Franck's Sonata in A major written in 1886 as a wedding gift to the virtuoso Ysaÿe (more on him later). This is considered one of the finest violin sonatas ever written and is one of Franck's most popular compositions. It is completely cyclic ( sensing a trend in the late 19th century perhaps?). So charming, and so French n'est-ce pas? Another trend in the 19th century is the use of REALLY difficult piano parts. These days you have to think twice before programming one of these on a recital - to make sure there is a pianist around who can handle it!

Although sonatas for violin and piano dominated throughout the Classical and Romantic era, Ysaÿe wrote six solo sonatas that are real show stoppers. Each is dedicated to a different colleague, drawing on their quirks and style. These pieces are highly virtuosic and reminiscent of Bach's solo sonata writing. Violinists love them - in a time where much of the solo repertoire was fluffy and filled with superficial flash these pieces have a weight and seriousness to them that is very attractive. 

In fact, recognize anything here? hint hint the beginning? This is Sonata No. 2 Op. 27 and is dedicated to Jacques Thibaud, a very close friend and fellow Frenchman who apparently warmed up everyday with the Preludio to Partita No. 3 by Bach and it could be heard from his open window in Paris. This is perhaps the most popular of the 6 sonatas but there are all pretty darn cool.

Moving on to a couple other Frenchies with well loved sonatas still played and enjoyed today. Debussy wrote his violin sonata in G minor in 1917. It was his last major composition and the premier was his last public performance with Gaston Poulet on the violin. It is brief yet charming and full of the colors Debussy always conjured in his music.

Next is Ravel. His sonata No. 2 in G major was composed between 1923-1927 and really captures his love of Jazz and American music. This is like playing jazz for the classical musician - you have to portray the feel, and make some really cool effects but you don't have to do any improvisation. All the 'cool kats' think this piece is pretty neat - and it is. A very nice portrait of the versatility of the instrument. In the 20th century we start hearing, as with other genres, the violin used to promote specific aesthetics rather than simply the loveliness of the instrument (and Sonata form is virtually abandoned along the way). 

Prokofiev wrote 2 sonatas for violin and piano. The first in F minor was written between 1936-46 and is a huge task to take on for both performers - it is dark! Like graveyard dark, and gloomy and brooding, It is awesome. He also wrote a solo sonata which is not dark or brooding - in fact it is rather militant sounding. I once heard that this piece was often performed by a group of violinists in unison, and that is actually how I have performed it but otherwise I have never found this to be the case. Prokofiev also wrote a sonata for two violins written in 1932. I've only heard recordings but I really wish it was performed more often!

One more solo sonata worth mentioning (and admiring) is Bartok's sonata for solo violin. Premiered in 1944 by Yehudi Menuhin, it is outrageously difficult! Bartok at the time was very ill with Leukemia and this is one of his last compositions. Ever inspired by Bach, this piece recalls his solo sonatas and makes use of Baroque organizational and structural techniques like Fugues and Chaccone and a Presto movement to close. You know you're good if you can play this!

Well this turned out to be a little longer than I planned - oops! There is just some seriously cool stuff out there! I didn't even get to the Americans! Make sure to sink your teeth into some Ives (he wrote 4) and they are whacky, quirky, cool. Say hello to some hymns and pop tune quotes, a fair sprinkling of Americana, and some traditional sonata norms. The following is Sonata no. 4 titled "Children's day at Camp Meeting" and was composed around 1916.

And don't forget the Copland Sonata, premiered in 1944. There is just no denying that Copland sound!

Finally, here are a few thoughts to contemplate - clearly the solo violin sonata is pretty awesome (pretty and awesome), so why are there not more of them? Especially in the Classical era and early Romantic era? What about all those virtuoso composers and performers like Paganini and Sarasate? Paganini actually wrote sonatas for violin and guitar - he was conveniently a virtuoso guitarist as well - and they can be found here. But mostly the flashy virtuoso performer composers concerned themselves with show pieces, concertos and caprices - anything to remind audiences that they were hands down THE BEST violinists alive. The violin sonata as a genre tended to be more serious in nature and less about the fireworks (unless they served the music of course) and therefore attracted those of a more compositionally austere disposition. As with other musical genres in the 20th century the violin sonata abandoned some of the norms and traditions of the past. Today, sonatas are still written for violinists, but perhaps under a different title, with a different agenda in mind. The use of sonata form is not standard anymore and the violin and piano are often asked to employ non traditional techniques to create effects. Minimalists sound minimal, Neo-classicists sound Neoclassical. You get the idea. Hope you enjoyed this! Leave any comments or feedback below - I'd love to hear about your favorite Violin Sonatas!

The Violin - Concerto

This semester I have the opportunity to teach a really cool class at Oklahoma Baptist University; A class all about the violin! Last summer, as I was studying for my general exams I came up with the idea of teaching a class that focuses on some of the details of being a violinist that there just isn't time to discuss and talk about in lessons. There is so much fascinating information and beautiful music out there in this field and so little time to find it that I really feel an obligation to my students to pass on at least a small sliver of what I know. The more I studied for my exams the more I found this information coming up in my own lessons with my professor as well as lessons with my students. And truth be told I was kind of looking for an excuse to keep discussing the violin, researching it, listening to it, watching performances, reading about it, and absorbing it in any way possible. Talk about a violin nerd! I am confessing, right here, in print, to proposing a class purely so that I could continue to study something I love and maybe get a few others excited about it along the way.

This class is a whirlwind tour through some of the important stuff young violinists should know. Each month we focus on a different aspect of the field covering repertoire, composers, teachers, and performers. Given the chance, I could probably teach a class on each of these subjects because there is so much to discuss but I'll take what I can get.

During the month of February we are taking a look at (and a listen to) the incredible wealth of repertoire written for the violin. Granted, it is really hard to limit the information to just one hour a week so I thought I would just leave the leftover notes here for everyone to see (and for my students to hopefully read, listen, watch, take notes and eventually remember) and with any luck maybe someone else will find this stuff interesting too. The following are some general notes on the violin concerto throughout history.

The Concerto 

The Concerto can loosely be defined as an instrumental work that maintains contrast between orchestral ensemble and a smaller group or solo instrument or among various groups of an undivided orchestra. Beginning in the 18th century the term was applied consistently to works in 3 movements, ordered fast-slow-fast, for soloist and orchestra, 2 or more soloists and orchestra (concerto grosso) or undivided orchestra. In the late 18th century and for most of the 19th century the solo concerto was a prominent form of virtuosic display. Before 1700 the term applied to pieces in a variety of forms for an even greater variety of performing media, voices and instruments. The violin was a popular choice in every era. It is highly virtuosic, projects well over an ensemble, is versatile and beautiful to watch and also to listen to. Yehudi Menuhin credits the popularity of the violin, and specifically the violin concerto, to its ability to still emotions in the listener and to tug at the heart strings of the audience. I completely agree! It is emotive yet technical simultaneously.


The concerto as a genre came into its own at the end of the 17th century. It was considered a progressive offshoot of the sonata, designed for performance with a string orchestra. It was around this time that the violin as we know it was born. Stradivarius, Guarneri, and several others were creating the impeccable instruments that we still admire and imitate today. Italy was alive with excitement for the violin and with the advent of such sublime instruments and a shifted focus, and attention to instrumental music the violin became immensely popular.

In Italy there were 2 primary centers when it came to composition. Rome and Venice. At the head of the Roman tradition sat Archangelo Corelli. In Venice Antonio Vivaldi was considered the master. The Roman approach to the early concerto, specifically credited to Corelli used a small group of soloists - typically 2 violins, cello or lute and continuo - accompanied by a larger string ensemble. This was known as a concerto grosso. Corelli's Op. 6 consists of 12 Concerto Grossi. They are beautiful and lush and still quite popular today. These pieces are accessible to performers of all abilities, as is much of Corelli's music and can be heard regularly on student recitals and in Baroque ensemble performances. It was actually Torelli, another composer from the Roman tradition, and not Corelli however, who is credited with writing the first solo violin concerto. Corelli and his fellow Roman composers used the movement order slow-fast-slow in trio sonatas, concerti grossi, and solo concerti and his style is not nearly as extravagant or showy as Vivaldi's.

In Venice, Vivaldi introduced an exciting and new musical language full of strong effects like orchestral unisons, virtuosic solo lines and lyrical moments that offset the high speed dexterity. The virtuosity of his solo lines set a new standard in violin repertoire as did his ordering of movements fast-slow-fast. As a teacher and performer he wrote hundreds of concerti for all types of occasions and instrumentation. The rise of the concerto also coincided exactly with music publishing in Europe. Therefore the influence of Vivaldi and Corelli was far reaching and their style and trends spread across Europe quickly. Venice was the center for commerce and printing at the time and Vivaldi, known as the 'Red Priest' was highly sought after during his lifetime. After his death his music waned in popularity and it was not the late 18th century that it garnered acclaim again. Now, The four seasons, is some of the most popular and most recorded violin music in history. 

The concerto as a genre spread quickly across Europe. Many Italian composers and violinists moved around and worked in courts all across Europe. In Germany Vivaldi was highly imitated by the likes of J.S. Bach, Telemann, Pisendel and many others.

The Baroque concerto was extremely important for several reasons. It served as a massive stimulus for violin technique; There were huge virtuosic advancements in the repertoire and the conception of the instrument changed dramatically. It also served as a vehicle for new performers and consequently bridged the gap between amateur or 'rank and file' musicians and virtuosos offering them a stage to perform on together. And most importantly it raised the profile and reputation of instrumental music substantially so that it soon rivaled opera and in popularity.


By the mid 18th century the solo concerto had basically taken over and the concerto grosso fell out of favor. The solo concerto was widely cultivated all over Europe. Each region added their own particular traits. In France works for violin were immensely popular. Leclair, and Gaviniés wrote many, and Viotti (who wrote 19 violin concertos) became the most important figure of the later violin tradition. Very little of this repertoire is still performed or taught today. Gavinies études are taught regularly for their technical challenges but I have never heard one of his concertos performed. Concerto No. 23 in G major by Viotti however is taught regularly to intermediate students in preparation for the transition into more serious repertoire. In fact, Joseph Silverstein once said in a masterclass that students should always learn to play Viotti before they attempt Mozart because there are important violinistic skills to be learned in them and it is an excellent place for one to sharpen their teeth in preparation for the repertoire to come.

In the German tradition the Mannheim court really paved the way for virtuosic performing and composing with the abundance of highly skilled performers. Increasingly they made use of what is now known as sonata form, and often used a Rondo to organize the last movement. Johann Stamitz and his sons Carl and Anton were highly respected musicians and their music is still performed today - although admittedly more so on viola than on violin.

When we think of Classical music and specifically the classical concerto Mozart and Haydn immediately come to mind. Their music was instrumental in shaping the following generations. Mozart wrote five concertos for solo violin, three of them are still widely performed and are often requested at orchestral auditions because of the high technical level required to play them well. He also wrote sinfonia concertante for violin and viola, a spruced up version of a concerto grosso. In Mozart's music you can hear the influence of opera and the highly virtuosic solo lines are no longer accompanied by simple orchestral parts but instead the orchestra takes on a much more important role and the parts become more demanding. Rather than just accompanying the soloist the orchestra takes part in a growing dialogue. In class we talked specifically about the 5th concerto in order to highlight some of the 'Turkish' or Eastern trends that were beginning to seep into classical music. Mozart's last violin concerto is arguably his most popular and perhaps most interesting due to the shifts in meter, key and feel particularly in the last movement. You can hear the more central role of the orchestra as well as the interplay between major and minor in the last movement below.


In the 19th century the concerto was considered a pivotal and defining form in musical culture. By 1800 it was the synthesis of past traditions tracing back to the Baroque era and was also ideally situated to best express the ambitions inherent in early romanticism. Composers toyed with the dynamic of soloist versus ensemble. This is when it gets really interesting! There are so many fantastic pieces written in this era - the violin was so versatile and could express a whole range of emotions and the soloist was seen as a dramatic protagonist pitted against the orchestra. The concerto as a genre was also able to maintain the structural coherence that made it so successful. Due to the popularity of public concerts it was also an excellent arena for one to further their career as a soloist and virtuoso. Composer performers used the genre to highlight their abilities and flaunt their talent while showcasing the sonority and expressive range of the instrument. There were also conservatories, such as the Paris Conservatory where excellent violin faculty composed pieces for students as examinations and as technical exercises. And finally, composers who were not violinists by trade tried their hand at writing in the genre. Symphonists, and pianists who were never known as great violinists wrote highly technical and extremely demanding repertoire in this genre for the first time, and the performance of these pieces required a violinist of extreme ability to perform and premier their works. At this point I am tempted to just list off my favorite pieces, those still taught, ones I had never heard of and everything in between. Instead I will do my best to outline a few sub categories and explain which are the most beloved, wish me luck!

Many, many concerti were written for all sorts of reasons but by 1880 there were 3 distinct types of concertos found. Many had elements from all three. They were the virtuoso concerto, the symphonic concerto and the narrative concerto.

the virtuoso concerto - this subgenre flourished in the 1820s and onwards. It was the preferred vehicle for displaying the full range of the instrument. The orchestral writing was minimal and served only to provide a helpful framework to the soloist. A 3 movement form ensured that the performer would have ample time to display the velocity, dexterity, grace, accuracy, intimacy of expression and power and profundity available on the violin. Paganini's 6 concertos serve as an outstanding example of every technical feat the violin had to offer although the output of Vieuxtemps and Wieniawski certainly cannot be ignored. The Paganini concertos are impressive to hear and also to watch. One can't help but react to the firework displays captured on the violin. You can also hear the influence of Bel Canto opera in his musical style - the ever so flashy vocal style adored all over Europe. This video is great because you see some impressive close ups. I certainly watch and exclaim 'Wow!' when I see Paganini played well!

the symphonic concerto - this genre developed as a reaction to all of the flashy showmanship of the virtuosic concertos. It progressed on the same lines as symphonies did and the orchestra played a major role in these pieces. They are often very long, dense and musically demanding by all involved. The Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Saint-Saëns, and Brahms violin concertos are all examples of this genre. They are formally progressive, highly expressive and virtuosically demanding but specifically to serve the music rather than showcase the performer. They tend to be very long, melodically driven and harmonically interesting. Usually I prefer to watch a great performer on youtube rather than the notes of the score, but below you can see the Saint-Saëns violin part and get a feel for the musicality and virtuosity involved in these 'anti virtuoso' concertos.

the narrative concerto - by means of Liszt's innovations and the early romantic pursuit of instrumental music as a medium through which the poetic, epic and dramatic could be expressed these concertos often had a very specific agenda. Sometimes they were just one movement long, others were trying to capture a certain flavor or even tell a story. Lalo's 'Symphonie Espagnole' falls in this category (incidentally this piece was highly influential on Tchaikovsky when he wrote his own violin concerto a short while later). You can really hear the spanish flair he was trying to capture on the violin. It becomes the central feature of the piece - each of the 5 movements is full of character.

obviously this does not come close to covering all of the fantastic repertoire out there. But, again, to prevent myself from just writing lists of music and inserting a plethora of videos this is my brief overview.

The Big 5

There are five violin concertos considered to be the pinnacle of the genre; the most mature and difficult to perform, interpret and endure. They are masterpieces, adored not just by violinists but by the whole world. They are used in movies and appear on orchestra season programs regularly. I adore each of them and for many years they were the pieces I aspired (and still do) to play. The technical demand one must have on their instrument is cause for celebration itself let alone the musicianship and endurance, focus and concentration. So enjoy them and appreciate the years or work and dedication that you hear when one of these is performed. They are:

Beethoven Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D major, Op.61 (1806)

This one might be the very pinnacle of violin playing. If you can play this, and do it well you are most likely a professional with years of training....or you are insanely talented and either have a blossoming career or will have one soon. Everyone wants to play this one, and few want to teach it. It is almost religious to hear some violinists talk about this piece. So clean, pure and challenging. The fact that it is an hour long means you have to eat some protein before you even get started! To keep your head in the game for that long is exhausting. Not to mention the technical feats to be accomplished along the way It was premiered and then forgotten for many years and from what I have read the premier was absolutely dreadful. The soloist sightread portions of the work onstage, the orchestration is often dense and again it is LONG! The concerto was not met with wide success or interest for many years until Joseph Joachim discovered it and popularized it. There are now numerous cadenzas written for it - the most popular being the one written by Fritz Kreisler (heard in this video).

Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E minor Op. 64 (1845)

I love this piece! Ok, I love them all but this one I have studied intensely and just can't seem to get enough. Mendelssohn does a few unusual things formally - the soloist starts the piece. He does away with the orchestral introduction, he also composes the cadenza rather than letting the performer use it as an excuse to show off he uses it structurally to return to the primary material of the first movement. He also composes all movements to act as one long piece, each movement moves directly into the next. Mendelssohn consulted with his good friend Ferdinand David about performing this piece, editing it, and the expressive markings and Ferdinand David gave the premier of this piece. One of my teachers referred to this piece as 'Mozart on drugs' and I definitely see where she is coming from. It has all of the clean, classical, refinement of a Mozart concerto with all of the demands of a romantic, significant concerto of the 19th century. 

Brahms Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 77 (1878)

When I was in high school I bought a recording of Hilary Hahn playing this concerto and listened to it at least once per day for a full semester. The fire and flair that the violinist bursts on the scene with is so exciting! The energy is right there, tangible even through a recording! The second movement is such a gorgeous melody, and cleverly Brahms gives a massive solo to the oboe. This was borderline scandalous but extremely successful. It was dedicated to and premiered by Brahms' dear friend Joseph Joachim who insisted on performing the Beethoven Concerto alongside it at the premier - talk about a marathon! The last movement is used in the film There will be Blood at the very end (I believe when the credits role).

Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35 (1878).

Written in Switzerland while Tchaikovsky was on vacation. He is said to have been charmed by Lalo's Symphonie Espagnole which was all the rage in Europe at the time. He wrote it rather quickly and intended for Leopold Auer to premier it, but instead Adolf Brodsky did the honors. It was not met with positive reviews. Auer was apparently not fond of it from the beginning and declined the offer and the dedication. He never really changed his song on this but he has feigned regret for not honoring Tchaikovsky's request. Comments from the premier include remarks regarding the violin being beat black and blue, others said it was long and pretentious but it has clearly grown in popularity since the premier and is now one of the most loved concertos in the repertoire. You can hear Tchaikovsky's style everywhere - the combination of grace and drama from his work in ballet is completely tangible throughout.

Sibelius Violin Concerto in D minor Op. 47 (1904)

This is the only concerto Sibelius ever wrote. The beginning always makes me think of a cold, snowy ride through the woods in a carriage with snow falling all around you. There were 2 premiers of this piece and it exists in 2 editions. The second edition is the most popular and most played. The first edition was considered too difficult and was heavily revised. Recently, Leonidas Kavakos was granted permission to record it, and I really would like to hear them played back to back. It was premiered originally by Nováček in Helsinki and later in Berlin with Richard Strauss conducting and William Burmeister performing. It is another great concerto where the soloist makes their entrance almost immediately in. In high school I used to say 'I can't stop playing the violin until I can play the sibelius violin concerto'.....and I still haven't learned this beast yet. But I still do love it just as much!

In the 20th century the violin concerto tended to serve this musical needs and requirements of the composer in a different way. Berg wrote a fantastic concerto, but it is difficult and wonderful because of its use of the 12-tone system. Similarly minimalist composers used the genre as another outlet for their aesthetics or it was often only written when commissioned or requested by particular performers. Nevertheless, the violin concerto is still incredible to witness in performance, to study in school and listen to ALL OF THE TIME.

A few of my favorites from the 20th century include - 

The Khachaturian violin concerto in D minor (1940) - Premiered by Oistrakh

The Korngold violin concerto in D major (1945) Premiered by Heifetz.

Shostakovich Violin concerto No. 1 in A minor Op. 99 (1967) Premiered by Oistrakh

This was a lengthy post - but I hope at least a little bit interesting. Leave some comments! What are your favorites?