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My, Myself & I: Unaccompanied Solo Works

Ether Game's list of some of the best unaccompanied solo works in classical music.

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Photo: Pixabay

We're standing out in a crowd this week, looking at some works for solo instruments.

This week on the show, the Ether Game Brain Trust is going at it alone. We’re exploring solo, unaccompanied, monophonic works this week. Here’s our list of some of the best:


  • Johann Sebastian Bach, Partita No. 3 in E Major for Solo Violin: One of the most celebrated works for solo violin, Bach’s Partita No. 3 in E Major for Solo Violin was the last of his group of six violin sonatas and partitas that Bach completed around the year 1720. Bach was especially proud of the Prelude for this partita. He reused its music in two later cantatas: his 1729 cantata Herr Gott, Beherrscher aller Dinge and his 1731 cantata Wir danken dir, Gott, wir danken dir. This partita also serves as an ambassador to earth. The partita’s Gavotte and Rondeau movement is one of the three pieces by Bach on the Voyager Golden Record, currently floating somewhere in interstellar space.

 

  • Claude Debussy, Syrinx (for Solo Flute): It’s not uncommon to hear a piece for solo flute these days, but before Debussy wrote Syrinx in 1913, art music composed for unaccompanied wind instruments was almost nonexistent. Debussy’s composition marked a pivotal role in the development of solo wind music. It was the first piece for solo flute to be premiered on the Boehm. Invented by German flautist Theobald Boehm in 1847, the Boehm flute transformed the fairly limited wood instrument of the Baroque era into the metal, fully chromatic instrument that we know today. Debussy originally wrote the piece without bar lines, giving the performer ample room for expression. This, combined with new techniques made possible by the Boehm system, showed audiences the full emotional potential of the unaccompanied flute, and brought to life the ancient subject that inspired the piece. Debussy named the work for the beautiful nymph Syrinx, who is accidentally killed by Pan in a tragic love story.

 

  • Steve Reich, Violin Phase: Although this complex work sounds like it’s for many musicians, it’s usually performed by a single solo violinist, albeit with the help of some technology. Violin Phase—like Steve Reich’s previous works It’s Gonna RainCome OutReed Phase, or Piano Phase—grew out of two obsessions for the composer: 1) his experimentation with recording on tape, and 2) his fascination with hearing the process behind musical form. The work, as it’s often performed, features one soloist performing a pattern of notes live, with the same pattern played back on pre-recorded tapes. After the pattern is established, the tapes start to drift out of sync, or “out of phase” as he called it. The audience can hear this process happening in real time, as well as all of the resulting patterns that occur when the parts fall out of sync. For Reich, it was a different way to not just write, but also experience music.

 

  • François Couperin, Pièces de ClavecinSome of the greatest solo works from the early Baroque era come from François Couperin, and his solo keyboard works. Born into a gifted musical family, he was a particularly skilled solo performer at the keyboard, and earned the nickname “Couperin Le Grand” to distinguish himself from the rest of his family. Though his compositions were greatly desired by the French elite, Couperin faced a major social predicament among his admirers: he adored Italian music, and preferred to compose in the Italian style. He published his first solo pieces under an Italian pseudonym and though the pieces were well received, the French intellectual elite were outraged when they discovered his trickery. They argued that the Italian tradition of writing music for its own sake was artificial and not true art. Couperin appeased them by giving his future pieces titles that referenced French subjects and stories.

 

  • Edgard Varèse, Density 21.5: Edgard Varèse’s compositions were guided by a belief in a fusion of science and art, in which artists invented instruments, made discoveries, and expanded the sonic possibilities of music. Several of his works have titles inspired by science, such as the solo flute piece we just heard. Written in 1936 for the French flautist George Barrére, Density 21.5 refers to the density, or specific gravity, of platinum, the metal from which Barrére’s flute was constructed. Performing on an exceptionally fine instrument was not Barrére’s only claim to fame before working with Varèse. He was also the first flautist to perform the opening flute solo in Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, a piece that marked the beginning of Debussy’s revolution in tonal harmony.

 

  • Eugène Ysaÿe, Sonata No. 4 in D Minor, “Ballade”: Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe was one of the great virtuosos of the late 19th century and early 20th centuries, arguably the next great violinist after Paganini. He was considered one of the best interpreters of the music of Bach, Debussy, and Franck, but he also wrote his own works. In 1923, he contributed to the violin repertoire and composed six sonatas for solo violin, following in the footsteps of the Six Sonatas and Partitas by J.S. Bach. Understanding his place among the great virtuosos, Ysaye dedicated each sonata to a different virtuoso college, including Fritz Kreisler, Jacques Thibaud, and Joseph Szigeti. His third sonata in D minor, titled “Ballade,” was dedicated to virtuoso violinist and composer Georges Enescu. It’s the only single movement sonata in this set, and its sweeping gestures and bizarre harmonies clearly show reverence for Enescu as a both a performer and composer.

 

  • Vincent Persichetti, ParablesAmerican composer Vincent Persichetti was one of the most prolific composers of the 20th century. However, his greatest legacy might be his students. As a composition professor at Juilliard, Persichetti’s students included people like Philip Glass, Einojuhani Rautavaara, Peter Schickele (aka P.D.Q. Bach), and Bruce Adolphe (the Piano Puzzler guy on Performance Today). Persichetti was also known for works he called “parables,” twenty-five pieces in all, mostly written for different solo, unaccompanied instruments, including flute, oboe, clarinet, alto saxophone, bassoon, double bass, tuba, harpsichord, english horn, and even carillon. Like the other kind of “parable,” Persichetti’s parables are usually short pieces that illustrate some larger theme. In this case, the larger themes are Persichetti’s larger works, from which most of the musical material is derived.

 

Luciano Berio’s Sequenzas? Nicolo Paganini’s Caprices? What other solo works did we miss? Let us know!

Music Heard On This Episode

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