The violin repertoire is incredibly vast and diverse, spanning several centuries and encompassing various styles and genres.
With so much history, breadth, and diversity of repertoire, one might wonder: what are the “best” or what are the “hardest” pieces for violin?
Of course, it's challenging to determine the definitive answers to those questions since a lot will depend on one’s personal preferences.
However, here’s a brief overview of some widely celebrated and frequently performed pieces throughout the history of violin music:
Violin solos in the Baroque Era
During the Baroque Era (roughly 1600-1750), the violin played a pivotal role in the development of instrumental music. Some notable violin pieces from that period include:
- Johann Sebastian Bach - Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin
- Antonio Vivaldi - The Four Seasons
- Arcangelo Corelli - Violin Sonatas
Violin solos in the Classical Period
During the Classical Period (1750 – early 1800s) the violin continued to be a prominent instrument, with most celebrated composers writing extensively for the violin in solo and chamber music settings:
- Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Violin Concertos (especially No. 3, No. 4, and No. 5), numerous violin sonatas
- Ludwig van Beethoven – 10 Sonatas for Violin and Piano; Violin Concerto op. 61
Violin solos in the Romantic Era
During the Romantic Era (early 19th – early 20th century) the violin repertoire expanded greatly, and composers explored new expressive possibilities for the instrument:
- Niccolò Paganini - 24 Caprices for Solo Violin
- Felix Mendelssohn - Violin Concerto in E minor
- Max Bruch - Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor
- Pyotr Tchaikovsky - Violin Concerto in D major
- Johannes Brahms - Violin Concerto in D major
Violin solos from the 20th century
The 20th century brought significant changes and innovations to the world of violin music. Composers explored new techniques, expanded tonal possibilities, and experimented with different styles:
- Igor Stravinsky - Violin Concerto in D major
- Sergei Prokofiev - Violin Concerto No. 1 and No. 2
- Béla Bartók - Violin Concerto No. 2; Sonata for Solo Violin
- Dmitri Shostakovich - Violin Concerto No. 1
Contemporary violin solos
Contemporary violin music refers to compositions written in recent decades, often pushing the boundaries of traditional classical music. Here are some examples:
- Philip Glass - Violin Concerto
- Alfred Schnittke – A Paganini for violin solo
- Witold Lutosławski – Subito for violin and piano
- Tan Dun – Violin Concerto
Certainly, this is just a brief overview, and there are numerous other incredible pieces in the violin repertoire.
Different performers and music lovers may have additional personal favorites. Exploring the vastness of the violin repertoire is a fun lifelong project, filled with exciting musical discoveries.
What are the hardest violin pieces?
All of the famous compositions listed above have provided inspiration for violinists for centuries, but are they “the hardest” pieces ever written? Are they “the best”? How do we quantify that, are these even the right questions to ask?
What the “best” piece is largely depends on one’s personal taste.
Critically acclaimed compositions that stood the test of time and have been played and enjoyed for centuries are a great place to start exploring the violin repertoire (the above list will help with that), but there are so many hidden gems out there!
Online video libraries like tonebase Violin, as well as resources dedicated to storing sheet music provide plenty of opportunities to dive as deep into the subject as one could ever desire. It is always a good idea to be adventurous, open minded, and unafraid to explore!
Determining the "most difficult" violin piece is subjective, as it depends on the individual's skill level and strengths as a violinist.
However, there are several violin compositions known for their technical demands and virtuosic challenges. Here are a few examples:
1. Niccolò Paganini - "Caprice No. 24"
This piece is a staple in the violin repertoire and is renowned for its technical difficulty, including rapid fingerwork, double stops, and complex bowing techniques.
2. Eugène Ysaÿe - "Sonata No. 6"
Ysaÿe's six sonatas for solo violin are considered some of the most challenging pieces in the violin repertoire.
The sixth sonata requires exceptional bow control, complex fingerings, and extensive double stops.
3. Béla Bartók - "Sonata for Solo Violin"
Bartók's solo violin sonata is a modern masterpiece that pushes the boundaries of violin technique.
It combines intricate rhythms, unconventional tonalities, and demanding left-hand techniques.
4. Johann Sebastian Bach - "Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin"
Bach's collection of six works for solo violin is a monumental challenge for any violinist.
These pieces require mastery of polyphonic playing, intricate ornamentation, and a great understanding of the composer’s style.
These are just a few examples, and there are many other compositions that could be considered exceptionally challenging.
The perceived difficulty of a piece depends on the individual's skill, dedication to practicing, and familiarity with the specific technical and musical challenges presented in each composition.
What are the best violin cadenzas?
Cadenzas are an opportunity for a soloist to shine and showcase their technical ability and musicality, unobstructed by the orchestra.
There are numerous exquisite violin cadenzas composed throughout history, each with its own unique qualities and challenges.
There has been a strong tradition of performers writing cadenzas for the concerti they most enjoy performing.
Great violinists such as Joseph Joachim, Fritz Kreisler, Zino Francescatti, and David Oistrakh, just to name a few important names, wrote wonderful cadenzas for some famous violin concerti. Occasionally, the composers themselves wrote cadenzas for their own concerti.
While it is subjective to determine the "best" cadenzas, here are some notable ones that are widely performed and admired by violinists and audiences alike:
1. Fritz Kreisler, cadenza for Ludwig van Beethoven - Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 61
Kreisler’s cadenza for Beethoven’s Violin Concerto is a masterful display of virtuosity and musicality.
It seamlessly blends technical brilliance with the expression of the first movement’s melodic material, offering the soloist an opportunity to showcase their skills while remaining true to Beethoven's dramatic intent.
2. Pyotr Tchaikovsky - Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35
Tchaikovsky's violin concerto features a dazzling cadenza in the middle of the first movement.
It demands exceptional technical proficiency and emotional intensity from the soloist.
The cadenza is known for its brilliant passage work, showcasing the performer’s virtuosity, and setting the stage for the exciting ending of the concerto’s opening movement.
3. Felix Mendelssohn - Violin Concerto
Felix Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto is a staple in the violin repertoire.
The cadenza, written by the composer himself, is a dramatic highlight of the first movement, where the soloist is given the opportunity to showcase their ability to shape and express musical phrases, as well as show off their virtuosity and bow technique.
The cadenza is an integral part of the concerto, seamlessly connecting the thematic material and also allowing for personal interpretation.
4. Emile Sauret’s cadenza for Niccolò Paganini’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in D Major, Op. 6
Sauret, known for his extraordinary violin virtuosity, composed a cadenza for Paganini’s first violin concerto that is as technically demanding as it is captivating.
It contains lightning-fast passages, intricate double stops, and breathtaking runs, highlighting the violinist's technical prowess and command over the instrument.
These are just a few examples of notable violin cadenzas, and there are many more worth exploring.
If you would like to check out these examples in depth, click here to read our post on the "top 5 violin cadenzas".
Sonatas for violin and piano
So far, we have primarily discussed large works in the concerto genre, as well as pieces for solo violin.
But we as violinists are also exceptionally lucky to have an incredibly vast chamber music repertoire: string quartets, piano trios, and, of course, sonatas for violin and piano.
There are numerous outstanding violin sonatas composed throughout history, representing a variety of styles and periods.
So which are the "best"?
This is, of course, subjective and changes depending on personal taste, but here is a short list of some highly regarded violin sonatas:
- Ludwig van Beethoven - Violin Sonata No. 9 in A major, Op. 47 ("Kreutzer Sonata")
- César Franck - Violin Sonata in A major
- Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Violin Sonata No. 21 in E minor, K. 304
- Richard Strauss - Violin Sonata in E-flat major, Op. 18
- Johannes Brahms - Violin Sonata No. 3 in D minor, Op. 108
- Claude Debussy - Violin Sonata in G minor
- Sergei Prokofiev - Violin Sonata No. 1 in F minor, Op. 80
For a more detailed view into the best violin sonatas, click here.
Violin auditions: common orchestral excerpts
Chamber music is a great way to connect with other musicians.
Being a part of an orchestra takes this idea to another level: with all of the diverse instruments and talented musicians on stage, learning and performing orchestral pieces can be a fun and rewarding experience.
Here is a short list of pieces most commonly found on orchestral auditions lists:
- W.A. Mozart, Symphony #39
- F. Mendelssohn, Midsummer Night’s Dream
- S. Prokofiev, Symphony #1
- J. Brahms, Symphony #2
- J. Brahms, Symphony #4
- R. Strauss, Don Juan
- R. Schumann, Symphony #2
- L. Beethoven, Symphony #3
The non-symphonic portion of an orchestral audition often consists of pieces such as:
- W. A. Mozart, Concerto #4
- P. Tchaikovsky, Violin Concerto
- A movement from a Sonata or Partita by J. S. Bach may be required for some auditions as well.
Music school/college violin audition pieces
When selecting violin audition pieces, it's important to consider one’s skill level, the specific requirements of the audition, and one’s personal strengths and musicality.
However, here are some commonly recommended violin audition pieces across different levels:
1. Beginner/Elementary Level:
- Friedrich Seitz: Student Concerto No. 2 in G Major, 1st or 3rd movement
- Shinichi Suzuki: Perpetual Motion
- Franz Wohlfahrt: Foundation Studies
2. Intermediate Level:
- Johann Sebastian Bach: Concerto in A minor, 1st or 3rd movement
- Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Violin Concerto No. 3 in G Major, 1st or 3rd movement
- Franz Joseph Haydn: Violin Concerto G Major, 1st or 3rd movement
3. Advanced Level:
- Felix Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto in E minor, 1st movement
- Niccolò Paganini: Caprice No. 24
- Henryk Wieniawski: Violin Concerto No. 2 in D minor, 1st movement
4. Professional Level:
- Ludwig van Beethoven: Violin Concerto in D Major, 1st movement
- Johannes Brahms: Violin Concerto in D Major, 1st movement
- Pyotr Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D Major, 1st movement
Check out this preview of David Kim’s course on audition approaches to the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto on tonebase Violin:
And there you have it, there’s a full, comprehensive guide to navigating the world of violin solos!
Whether you’re looking for new violin repertoire for an upcoming concert, or your preparing violin solos for an important audition, now you should have your expectations set for the kinds of pieces that can be thrown in your direction.
For some pre-audition advice, click here to check out my post on best practices for approaching a violin audition.
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