The violin sonata is a vital piece of the greater classical canon.
Not only is it important for violinists to know this side of their repertoire, it’s also great for anyone who is interested in learning more about classical music as a whole to familiarize themselves with the violin sonata.
Some of the greatest works ever composed were written for this instrumentation, and here I’ll take you through what I believe are the 10 best violin sonatas.
1. Ludwig van Beethoven - Violin Sonata No. 9 in A major, Op. 47 ("Kreutzer Sonata")
First on the list is a remarkably sensitive work from Beethoven, his Violin Sonata No. 9 in A Major, Op. 47, otherwise known as his “Kreutzer Sonata”.
The piece stands out amongst his other sonatas firstly due to its sheer length.
A typical performance of the sonata will last roughly 43 minutes long, which is incredibly lengthy compared to other popular violin sonatas.
This length isn’t helped by the fact that much of this piece is incredibly difficult for both the violinist and the pianist. However, this difficulty gives the piece a wide range of emotion and a fiery energy at the moments where it counts.
2. César Franck - Violin Sonata in A major
Next on the list is César Franck’s Violin Sonata in A Major, an incredibly heartfelt piece written for the iconic violinist Eugène Ysaÿe as a wedding present.
Since its premiere in 1886, the piece has become one of the most well-known violin sonatas in the repertoire, as well as becoming one of the most famous works by Franck.
While the piece provides quite a showy violin part, it’s also known for its incredibly difficult piano accompaniment.
That’s not to say it’s for nothing, as the more virtuosic sections in the piano really propel the violin forward technically and emotionally.
3. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Violin Sonata No. 21 in E minor, K. 304
In contrast to the Franck, here is a hugely iconic violin sonata that embraces simplicity and tenderness as its emotional core.
Mozart composed his Violin Sonata No. 21 around the same time his mother passed away, and the sorrow from this time in his life can really be felt musically in this work.
I’ve found that this piece is at its most elegant in its more slow sections, such as throughout much of the second movement.
All in all, this piece has stood the test of time for one of the most famous string quartets in the entire repertoire.
4. Richard Strauss - Violin Sonata in E-flat major, Op. 18
Strauss’ Violin Sonata in E-flat Major could be called conservative compared to his other works of that time, especially with regards to its form.
However, some of the piece’s charm comes from its reliance on sonata form in the first and third movements, which provides the piece with a nice direction to it.
The improvisatory second movement really gives the sonata a flare that sets it apart from other pieces of its time.
5. Johannes Brahms - Violin Sonata No. 3 in D minor, Op. 108
Johannes Brahms’ Violin Sonata No. 3 is his third and last violin sonata, written between 1886-1888.
It features many of Brahms’ characteristic compositional features, evident in both the violin and the piano accompaniment.
It’s a 4 movement piece with a lot of character, which has seen so many performances over its lifespan.
6. Claude Debussy - Violin Sonata in G minor
Debussy’s Violin Sonata in G Minor is actually a fragment of what would have been a larger work known as his “Six sonates pour divers instruments”, or “Six sonatas for various instruments”.
This endeavor was cut short by the passing of Debussy in 1918, who only got through 3 of the 6 sonatas.
With this in mind, Debussy’s Violin Sonata was actually his last finished piece of music before his passing.
The sonata itself consists of 3 movements, lasting about 13 minutes in total. With a 1917 premiere with Debussy on the piano, it was also his last public performance.
With all this said, Debussy’s Violin Sonata really feels like a final goodbye to his compositional career, as it, in my opinion, demonstrates a peak sense of musical maturity.
Debussy’s use of thematic development and impressionist harmony feel super natural and incredibly musical, which makes it a must-include for this list.
7. Sergei Prokofiev - Violin Sonata No. 1 in F minor, Op. 80
Prokofiev’s Violin Sonata No. 1 is widely considered his darkest piece of music.
Consisting of 4 movements which last a total of 30 minutes, Prokofiev builds the sonata out of lots of stepwise motion and sustained dissonance in both the piano and the violin.
This is a personal favorite of mine from Prokofiev’s body of work, as his development of material as well as his tight control over the ambience of the music give the piece a very pleasant musical “space” as one might call it.
8. Béla Bartók - Violin Sonata No. 1
Béla Bartók’s Violin Sonata No. 1 is a classic in the violin sonata world, and that’s for good reason.
Bartók blends sonata form with his famous use of Hungarian folk elements in a way that feels super natural, giving the piece a very nice sense of cohesion and legacy.
9. Arvo Pärt- Spiegel im Spiegel (Original)
Spiegel im Spiegel is German for “mirror in the mirror”, which is precisely what the entire piece is about.
Throughout the entirety of the 10 minute work, tonic triads are repeated and reflected off of each other, which ends up creating a very lulling, pleasant atmosphere.
This work, as well as much of Pärt’s body of work, is built off of a combination of numerical principles and strict diatonicism which make it a staple of minimalism for many people, although he notably did not use the term himself.
All in all, this piece’s outstanding legacy on 20th century classical music makes it a vital contribution to the list.
10. Ottorino Respighi - Sonata for Violin and Piano
Last on the list is Ottorino Respighi’s Sonata for Violin and Piano.
While Respighi is more known for his giant orchestral works, such as Pines of Rome and Fountains of Rome, he also possesses a large portfolio of equally charming chamber music.
This violin sonata of his brings with it many characteristic techniques favored by the composer, such as spread octave-based figures and a general post-romantic sense of harmony.
However, many moments of the piece stray away from his usually lush harmonies and lean towards more unconventional approaches to harmonic rhythm, which give the piece a very nice sense of progression.
And there you go, there are 10 of the best violin sonatas.
If you’re looking for more repertoire, check out Amy Beach’s Violin Sonata, as well as Korngold’s Violin Sonata, where you’ll find some truly wonderful violin writing.
And if you're looking for general violin repertoire, click here to check out our complete overview of violin solos.
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