How To Have A Big Crush On The Violin

Something you learn in years of playing an instrument is that it’s not all about you.

Every week, I struggle not to write about friend of the column Camille Saint-Saëns. I’m not quite sure why! He’s by no means my favorite composer, but his work has always had an odd staying power for me. Perhaps it’s because in my years as a musician, I found myself playing his work the most. It never made much sense to me at the time: shouldn’t students of classical music be concerning themselves with Beethoven and Mozart and Tchaikovsky around Christmastime? But no, time and time again, I found ol’ C-C S-S’s name plopped down onto my music stand.

I get it now (mainly because I’m old): Saint-Saëns’ music is the classical (or, well, Romantic, but still) music you give to someone who doesn’t know whether or not they like classical music. No doubt there’s value in so many composers, but for the truly uninitiated, Saint-Saëns’ music is capable of bringing such light and color that it becomes impossible to turn away. And in light of writing last week about the piece that made me fall in love with the cello, here’s the piece that made me fall in love with the violin: Introduction et Rondo capriccioso (Itzhak Perlman, 2012).

As a percussionist, it’s easy (or so I found) to grow to resent instruments like the violin (or the trumpet, or the flute). These are showier instruments with more notes, more to say. They get all the good parts! They get to wear big long dresses (if said soloist is a woman). They get to hold their instrument in a delicate case versus a pack of mallets and a timpani that’s impossible to pick up without someone helping you. So rarely are they forced to rest for minutes on end waiting to play on big note then sink back into the shadows. But that’s the price you pay when you play an instrument that requires a giant mallet. Same, of course, goes for big solo pieces like the Introduction et Rondo capriccioso. And yet I’ve never not been totally won over by this piece, whether it’s Perlman playing it or the concertmaster of my high school orchestra or some extremely gifted 12-year-old in a youth symphony I once subbed in for.

Let’s first break down the language of the title. We know what “introduction” means because, um, of course we do. “Et” is French for “and.” Again: duh. Past columns have established a rondo as a bit of a round or a dance. And capriccioso suggests it’ll be a little free of form, which especially makes sense in terms of this being the Romantic era. No longer do we hear the precise violin solos that often sound like a beautiful algebra problem. When the violin enters a few seconds into Introduction et Rondo capriccioso, there’s a desperate longing to it, clawing over the hum of the orchestra. But that’s not the type of piece this is. It quickly sets off on a wild and evocative ride just at the 0:53 mark, speeding up and then quickly returning to its initial melody. The prologue of the piece comes to a close at the 1:38 mark, and violin takes on a sharper and more wry personality.

Saint-Saëns wrote this piece for the Spanish violinist Pablo de Sarasate, who requested the composer write him something “fresh and young as spring itself.” The two men were nine years apart and maybe a little horny for each other? Who am I to say, really. Any music is crush music when you really think about it. What an instruction, though, that I feel truly guides the tone of the piece. It’s almost as if Saint-Saëns is reinventing the violin with this piece of music. He’s composed what’s more or less an aria for it. It exposes such dazzling depth within the instrument and allows the violinist to show off a little all they can do. At once it’s both sweet and a little dangerous, wilting and commanding.

And we must discuss––it’s my column, not yours, so we must––the part in which the violinist plays double chords. It happens occasionally throughout the piece, and while it certainly wasn’t a new technique, it packs such power into this piece of music. Let’s hone in on the part around the 3:00 mark. The soloist plays a short dance––a call and response––with the orchestra, before sprinting upwards and landing back down on two strings. It’s as if the soloist is fighting for dominance with him- or herself––commandeering not one but two notes at the same time. But then, after the orchestra takes on the melody for a few seconds, the violin returns around the 3:44 mark and re-establishes the melody as something much more coy and coquettish. When the double chords return again around the 4:38 mark, there’s an undeniable romanticism to it. Here’s a part that requires its soloist to play with themselves, a duet all of one’s own.

I really don’t know how anyone could listen to Saint-Saëns and not immediately want to listen to everything else he’s ever done. In the final moments of the Introduction et Rondo capriccioso I feel so fully amped and ready to click play on just about any other piece within his repertoire. The violin is just trucking along as the woodwinds build up to the orchestra’s climax and it is such a gesture of a power and force. The double chords, even, make one final triumphant return in the end, shadowed by a long timpani roll (that’d be me, of course, waiting an entire piece for that mere part). But something you learn in years of playing an instrument is that it’s not, of course, all about you, because it’s always—literally always—about the violin.


You can find a corresponding playlist for all of the pieces discussed in this column here.

Image: Shinichi Kouroki via Flickr