Experiencing the Violin Concerto

Experiencing the Violin Concerto
By Franco Sciannameo
Rowman & Littlefield
A review by R.C. Speck

The next best thing to listening to music is reading about it. A distant second, true. But Franco Sciannameo makes it not so distant in his engaging work Experiencing the Violin Concerto.

Part music history and part music appreciation, Sciannameo makes the violin itself a central theme in the book, from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons to Schoenberg’s “unplayable” violin concerto. After providing a four-page timeline of all things violin (which stretches three centuries and includes mention of the 1998 film The Red Violin), Sciannameo takes us on a chronological tour of the violin concerto.

While comparing Vivaldi with Bach, Sciannameo discusses different performance practices of Baroque music: the “scholarly” style, played on period instruments, versus the “traditional,” which is anachronistically based on 19th-century practices. In a touching moment in the Mozart chapter, Sciannameo quotes a doting Leopold Mozart, admonishing his son for favoring the piano to the violin. Of course, Mozart’s five violin concertos get an in-depth treatment which is never too technical for the layperson to appreciate.

Sciannameo also doesn’t stick just with the A-list. Yes, Beethoven, Paganini, and Mendelssohn get their chapters (as they should). Sciannameo tells us why Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto no. 1 lacks a first movement in sonata form and relates the story of its long-lost score. But what about Giovanni Battista Viotti? He was the not-so-famous wine merchant and suspected French Revolution–era spy who apparently wrote violin concertos in his spare time. None other than musicologist Alfred Einstein praised him as Mozart’s equal in this regard.

Of course, no history of the violin concerto would be complete without delving into the one composed by Brahms for violinist Joseph Joachim. Sciannameo’s detail is remarkable. He tells us the meaning of Brahms’s use of colored ink upon his scores (red represented “revised passages for the soloist”). He provides the context of the famous quip that “Brahms’s is not a concerto for, but against, the violin.” And, of course, there is the masterful coverage of the music itself.

The 20th century gets fair play, with Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and Bartók featured prominently. Sciannameo describes Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto as “capricious, cheerful, mocking with a touch of the grotesque,” which makes sense given the unpredictably quixotic nature of that concerto’s final movement. Indeed, the work seems as peripatetic as the composer’s life. And from movement to movement, Sciannameo tells us why it is so in crystal-clear prose.

With Experiencing the Violin Concerto, one will certainly get caught up in reading about great music and the stories and characters which surround it. Most importantly, however, the book will inspire to experience the music directly, which we will do differently thanks to the writing of Franco Sciannameo.

This book review appeared in the summer 2017 issue of Quarter Notes, the member magazine of WCPE Radio, The Classical Station. To receive a subscription, become a member today!

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