About this Piece
Handel’s six violin sonatas appeared in various editions in London and Amsterdam during the 1720s and 1730s. This has, in some cases, made for problems of authenticity, but—remarkably—Handel’s own manuscript for the Violin Sonata in D major has survived across nearly three centuries, and this music is unquestionably authentic. The Sonata in D major is one of his finest chamber works, made famous by distinguished recordings from Joseph Szigeti, Jascha Heifetz, Isaac Stern, and many other violinists.
The Sonata is in four movements in the slow—fast—slow—fast sequence of the Italian sonata di chiesa. There is some question about Handel’s marking for the first movement: in some editions it is Affetuoso (“affectionate”), while in others it is simply Adagio. The very beginning is striking. The violin lays out what seem to be the notes of a D-major chord (D—F-sharp—A—D), but instead of the final D, Handel goes up one step, so that the opening statement is the unexpected D—F-sharp—A—E. The effect is surprising—unsettling!—and that upward span of a ninth will recur throughout this first movement, grinding dissonantly against the harmonic context that we expect (almost 200 years later, Bartók achieved exactly the same displacing effect in his First Violin Concerto, but, instead, he diminished the concluding note by a half-step: Bartók’s sequence D—F-sharp—A—C-sharp is just as unsettling as Handel’s leap of a ninth). From his dissonant opening, Handel builds a long slow movement of great dignity, and perhaps it is the jagged and unexpected effect of that opening gesture that gives this movement its strength.
The second movement, fugal in construction, is marked Allegro but seems to accelerate as it proceeds, as Handel diminishes the time-value of his note-sequence: he begins with a half-note, then goes to eighths, then to sixteenths, and then to trills and mordents, so that the tempo seems to rush ahead even as the performance should be rock-steady. The Larghetto, in B minor, has a dark and ceremonial character as the violin’s melodic line arches over the keyboard’s steady chordal accompaniment, while the concluding Allegro, in binary form, is driven along by the energy of its dotted rhythms and sixteenth-note runs.
Those who know Handel’s oratorios will recognize some of this music, for he liked the two Allegro movements of this Sonata enough to come back to them several decades later and adapt them for larger forces. The second movement became the basis for the choral double fugue that opens the second act of Solomon (1749), while the final movement became—with the addition of a viola part—the sinfonia in Act III, Scene I of Jephtha (1751). —Eric Bromberger