My Duo for Violin and Piano is not a “sonata” for violin and piano, but a reflection on the pre-history of the sonata as a form. Some of the earliest purely instrumental Western music came in the form of canzoni per sonare, or songs to be played—arrangements of popular vocal works for instruments alone. These transcriptions became more “instrumental” by way of variations—using the tune as a source from which instrumentalists and composers could spin out abstract ideas.
My Duo is in two movements, titled Canzona and Sonata, but they comprise two sides of one coin. The two movements together are a set of variations (six) on a single theme, which is first heard at the beginning of the first movement, then recapped near the ends of both movements. The variations are long and sometimes stray far from their source—particularly variations 2 and 5. Toward the middle of the second movement the source of the theme itself begins to emerge, which is the Sonata sopra Sancta Maria from Monteverdiʼs 1610 Vespers, one of the only pieces of its time titled “sonata” to feature the voice (so a contemporary reflection on the pre-history of the sonata).
The Monteverdi is unique in another way: his soprano repeats a single melodic line throughout the work, intoning the words “Sancta Maria, ora pro nobis” (holy Mary, pray for us). I hear a desperation in this plea, repeated again and again without alteration, as the music chugs along, oblivious. In the context of my Duo, this desperation turns violently angry, and signals the climax of the work: after a return to the opening theme, the final variation seeks solace by other means.