We celebrate some of the most well-known and widely celebrated music ever written for the violin
Antonio Vivaldi: The Four Seasons
Vivaldi’s Violin Concertos in E major (RV 269), G minor (RV 315), F major (RV 293) and F minor (RV 297) are familiar in many more minds than those that know that’s what they’re really called. We’re of course talking about the set of concertos that make up The Four Seasons (“Spring”, “Summer”, “Autumn” and “Winter” respectively).
The piece is as popular among aficionados and regular concert goers as it is among advertisers looking for dramatic music to bring their TV slots to life, young couples tying the knot and music directors delving into the “classical” cannon to soundtrack a film (points for ones you can think of—let us know in the comments below!).
Despite being composed nearly 300 years ago, the works have remained a mainstay of concert halls and popular culture, often inspiring new compositions such as Max Richter’s 2012 Recomposed and Anna Meredith’s 2016 Anno, which incorporates electronics and visuals.
Niccolò Paganini: “Caprice No. 24”
If it’s technical, virtuosic violin writing that this article’s had you craving since the title, Paganini’s "Caprice No. 24" has that in droves. A variation form solo violin work that’s long been considered one of the most difficult pieces ever written for the instrument, this caprice has it all: agile scale and arpeggio passages, parallel octaves and double-stopping for days, plenty of running up and down the fingerboard, and some left hand pizzicato thrown in for good measure.
If that’s gone way over your head then just give it a listen—technical knowledge aside, it sounds pretty darn incredible.
Vittorio Monti: “Czardas”
Like Paganini’s Caprice No. 24, Italian composer Monti’s “Czardas” pops up regularly in the crowd-pleasing parts of concert programmes. Composed in 1904 after a traditional Hungarian folk dance (or csárdás), the work starts slowly with plenty of raw Italianate emotion before breaking out into frenzied semiquaver passages juxtaposed later with heaving melodic phrases.
With all that drama and sentimentality, perfect for an expressive instrument like the violin, we’re not surprised it remains an instantly-recognisable favourite. We challenge readers less aquatinted with the concert hall not to know this one too: think Lady Gaga circa 2010…
Felix Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto in E Minor
Once you’ve heard the main theme from the first movement of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E Minor you’ll find it hard to forget: that’s certainly one of the work’s biggest appeals for us. The violin gets a stab at the beautiful melody first (which is quite unusual for concertos of the period) and the theme is heard in different iterations and over interesting textures throughout the sonata form movement.
Premiered in 1845, the Violin Concerto was Mendelssohn’s last major orchestral work and remains one of the most frequently performed violin concertos in history.
Johann Sebastian Bach: “Chaconne” from Partita No. 2 in D minor
Jagged chords herald the beginning of the “Chaconne” from Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D minor for violin, giving it as dramatic an opening as any work included in this list. Bach’s popular violin piece, composed between 1717 and 1720, puts any player to the test with stretches across four-note chords and multiple melody lines sounded simultaneously.
Violinist Joshua Bell has described it as “not just one of the greatest pieces of music ever written, but one of the greatest achievements of any man in history. It's a spiritually powerful piece, emotionally powerful, structurally perfect”. Very much worth a listen then.
Ralph Vaughan Williams: “The Lark Ascending”
Nothing is more quintessentially English, nor more satisfying for violinists and violin lovers, than the soaring melodies of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ gorgeous “The Lark Ascending.” Originally written for violin and piano and rescored for solo violin and orchestra in 1920, the work endures as one of the most popular pieces in concert halls in Britain and abroad.
It is based on George Meredith’s poem of the same name which, just like the opening violin solo, witnesses a lark as “He rises and begins to round / He drops the silver chain of sound…” It’s the epitome of nostalgic English pastoral romanticism.
Johann Sebastian Bach (arr. August Wilhelmj): Air On The G String
In the 19th century, German violinist August Wilhelmj wrote an arrangement of the “Air” from JS Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D Major for solo violin and orchestra. As well as singling out a soloist (instead of having a whole group of first violins playing the melody), the arrangement transposed the piece to a new key and required the soloist to play their whole part on the violin’s lowest string, which presented new possibilities in terms of how the piece could sound (and how difficult it could be!).
It has remained popular ever since, inspiring the chord sequence in Procol Harum’s hit song “A Whiter Shade Of Pale” and cropping up in numerous film soundtracks and TV ads.