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Famous Pieces for Violin and Orchestra With Descriptive Titles

Tong Keat has an M.A. in Violin Performance from MTSU in Tennessee. He is the founder of Just Violin, a free resources site for violinists.


Ernest Chausson (1855-1899) – Poème, Op.25

Chausson was a French composer whose promising career was cut short by his early death at the age of 44. After completing his law study, he went to study composition at the Paris Conservatoire with Massenet and Franck. He worked at the Société Nationale de Musique, an organization that promotes French music, until his death.

His composition output was small, but significant. One of the works that stand out is the Poème for violin and orchestra. This single-movement work was published in 1896, at the request of Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe. It is based on The Song of Love Triumphant (Le Chant de l'amour triomphant) by Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev, which tells the story of two young men who fell in love with the same woman.

The piece begins in a dark and somber mood, and the violin enters with an intimate cadenza-like statement. The music soon becomes more passionate, and the violin part turns into an emotional display of lyrical melodies and virtuosic passages. Violinist Vincent P. Skowronski gave the following advice to violinists attempting to perform this piece:

“Poème is a long, difficult, and sensually gripping playing experience, so you must save as much energy as you can. But, spend as much energy as your kaleidoscopic palette can handle because rarely do you get the opportunity to freewheel with such copious amounts of violinistic splendor.”

Janine Jansen plays Poème by Chausson

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) – The Lark Ascending

The Lark Ascending (1881) is a poem by George Meridith, which tells the tale of a skylark singing a heavenly song. It inspired Vaughan Williams to compose a musical piece of the same name for violin and piano in 1914, and later rescored it for violin and orchestra in 1920. This piece was dedicated to British violinist Marie Hall, who premiered both versions. Since then it has become a popular piece, especially in Britain, where it is performed regularly.

The composer quoted the lines of the poem in fly-leaf of his score. The music is highly evocative and showed traits of Impressionism. The use of pentatonic scales, modes, and free-flowing rhythms create an atmosphere strongly associated to the English landscape. Composed in the time of World War 1, the serenity of the music contradicted to the situation at that time. This piece had become a representation of the English style in a time when the country was trying to establish a national identity.

Janine Jansen plays The Lark Ascending by Vaughan Williams

Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) – Danse Macabre, Op.40

The Danse Macabre, also known as the Dance of Death, was originally an art song for voice and piano based on the text by Henri Cazalis. In 1874, Saint-Saëns made it into a tone poem for orchestra with a prominent solo violin part, usually played by the concertmaster.

The music begins with twelve repeated notes from the harp, signaling that the clock has strike midnight. The solo violin then enters with the tritone – often known as the devil in music, with the open strings in which the E string has been tuned down to E flat (scordatura). The enigmatic dance themes were then being passed around to different instrument sections, with increasing intensity and energy. A quote from Dies Irae – a requiem usually heard at a funeral, can be heard in the middle of the piece. Towards the end, the piece changes abruptly with an oboe motive that resembles a rooster’s crow and followed by a calm melody in major key played by the solo violin, which suggests that dawn is breaking.

Saint-Saëns - Danse Macabre, Op 40

Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) – Serenade after Plato’s Symposium

Bernstein’s Serenade after Plato’s Symposium was composed for solo violin, strings, harp, and percussion in 1954. It can be considered as a five-movement concerto for the violin. The Symposium is a philosophical text by Plato, which depicted a fictional dialogue by a group of notable men on the topic of love. Bernstein named each section of his music to a speaker of the symposium.

The Koussevitzky Foundation commissioned this work, and Bernstein conducted the premiere in 1954 with Isaac Stern as the soloist. It is incredibly challenging for both the violinist and the orchestra due to its frequently changing meter and unpredicted rhythmic pattern. Bernstein’s meticulousness can be seen throughout the score, in what considered as one of his finest concert-hall works.

Bernstein wrote the following comment on his Serenade:

I. Phaedrus—Pausanias (Lento—Allegro): Phaedrus opens the symposium with a lyrical oration in praise of Eros, the god of love. (Fugato, begun by the solo violin.) Pausanias continues by describing the duality of lover and beloved. This is expressed in a classical sonata-allegro, based on the material of the opening fugato.

II. Aristophanes (Allegretto): Aristophanes does not play the role of clown in this dialogue, but instead that of the bedtime storyteller, invoking the fairy-tale mythology of love.

III. Erixymachus (Presto): The physician speaks of bodily harmony as a scientific model for the workings of love-patterns. This is an extremely short fugato scherzo, born of a blend of mystery and humor.

IV. Agathon (Adagio): Perhaps the most moving speech of the dialogue, Agathon’s panegyric embraces all aspects of love’s powers, charms, and functions. This movement is a simple three-part song.

V. Socrates—Alcibiades (Molto tenuto—Allegro molto vivace): Socrates describes his visit to the seer Diotima, quoting her speech on the demonology of love. This is a slow introduction of greater weight than any of the preceding movements and serves as a highly developed reprise of the middle section of the Agathon movement, thus suggesting a hidden sonata form. The famous interruption by Alcibiades and his band of drunken revelers ushers in the Allegro, which is an extended rondo ranging in spirit from agitation through jiglike dance music to joyful celebration. If there is a hint of jazz in the celebration, I hope it will not be taken as anachronistic Greek party music, but rather the natural expression of a contemporary American composer imbued with the spirit of that timeless dinner party.


© 2017 Goh Tong Keat


Frances Metcalfe from The Limousin, France on March 04, 2018:

This is a lovely article and I so enjoyed reading it. The Poeme is a wonderfully sensuous and passionate work, beautifully developed and progressed in terms of emotional drive and a favourite of mine - I have Ginette Neveu playing it in the piano accompaniment version. I heard Danse Macabre (again - it's very popular) only yesterday on Radio France - what a coincidence!