The violin sonata is a type of composition that features a solo violin that is usually accompanied by a keyboard instrument, most typically a piano.
This is a relatively underappreciated part of the violin repertory since violin sonatas are considered chamber music and thus are often less showy than violin concertos.
Here is not a definitive list of violin sonatas, but my own personal opinion: there are many amazing sonatas that you should explore, either as a listener or a performer.
1. Johannes Sebastian Bach: Violin Partita No. 2 in D Minor (1717–20)
Though this is not a sonata, per se, and it is also unaccompanied, J.S. Bach’s Violin Partita No. 2 is included in his collection of three sonatas and three partitas for solo violin. The fifth movement in particular, the Chaconne, is hailed as not only the height of violin composition and artistry, but of human achievement.
Here is a live recording of Henryk Szeryng:
2. Ludwig van Beethoven: Violin Sonata No. 9 in A Major, “Kreutzer”
Beethoven’s violin sonatas represent a very important part of the violin repertoire. Of the 10 violin sonatas that Beethoven published, this one is perhaps the most famous.
It’s musical depth and craftsmanship, characteristic of Beethoven’s maturing style, makes this sonata a likely candidate to make the top-10 lists of classical music of all time.
This demanding and lengthy work in three movements was dedicated to French violinist Rodolphe Kreutzer, although he never even played it and moreover considered it unplayable.
Honourable mention: all of the other sonatas. Seriously, give them a listen. Try them out with different violinists; you will be surprised and delighted at the diverse interpretations.
3. Johannes Brahms: Violin Sonata No. 3 in D Minor (1888)
The three Brahms violin sonatas are also considered important parts of the violin repertory. His third violin sonata in d minor is the only one with four movements, the other are more standard in format with three.
The d minor violin sonata is unique also for its economy of form and thematic material; it’s at the precipice of a new era in music making, and even with Brahms’ more conservative compositional style, it is highly innovative in its late romantic style.
Honourable mentions include his two other sonatas for violin, the Violin Sonata No. 1 in G Major (1878–9) and Violin Sonata No. 2 in A Major (1886).
Here is a recording of David Oistrakh and Sviatoslav Richter:
4. Claude Debussy: Violin Sonata in G Minor (1917)
Subtle and intricate, Debussy’s only violin sonata was one of his final compositions before his death in 1918. Perhaps unbeknownst to him at the time, the premiere of this piece in May 1917 was actually Debussy’s final public performance, his swan song.
Though critics were not impressed with the piece at the premiere, this sonata has become a staple of the violin repertoire.
The three-movement work is relatively short, with a performance time of 13–14 minutes, but is nonetheless powerful in its artistry and abstract beauty.
5. Richard Strauss: Violin Sonata in E-Flat Major (1888)
This is a very popular violin sonata, even though it is not highly innovative as it is an early work by Strauss, who was only in his early twenties at the time of its composition. The work, in three movements, has a very romantic and sentimental first movement.
The second is an Improvisation, where the violin is written in such a way so as to give the impression of being improvised right on the spot by the performer. The final movement starts slow, but ends with virtuosic fireworks.
This is a treasured recording of Ginette Neveu and Gustav Beck:
6. Sergei Prokofiev: Violin Sonata No. 2 in D Major (1943)
Prokofiev’s second violin sonata was actually based on a flute sonata he had written the year previous, but David Oistrakh convinced him to transcribe it for the violin instead.
The sonata’s origins as a work for flute are evident in the lyrical lines and elegant style. Oistrakh premiered the work in 1944 with Lev Oborin.
Honourable mention: this is a recoding of Oistrakh and Oborin playing Prokofiev’s first violin sonata:
7. César Franck: Violin Sonata in A Major (1886)
French composer, César Franck’s violin sonata is one of the most celebrated pieces in the violin sonata repertoire. It is composed in a late Romantic and early Impressionist style.
Franck gave this beautiful work to the Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe on the morning of his wedding and then he proceeded to perform it for his wedding guests the same day.
A 1959 recoding of Isaac Stern and Alexander Zakin can be found here:
8. Dmitri Shostakovich: Sonata for Violin and Piano in G Major (1968)
This work is the second sonata on this list that was dedicated to the great David Oistrakh (the first being – very likely but mot official – the Prokofiev No. 2).
Shostakovich’s three-movement sonata is quite long and substantive at over half an hour playing time. The difficult work is quite progressive and characteristic of Shostakovich’s later works, featuring tone rows and many dissonant harmonies.
9. Gabriel Fauré: Violin Sonata No. 1 in A Major (1876)
Of his two violin sonatas, the first is definitely Fuaré’s most popular. The French composer wrote this piece in 1976, when he was only 31 years old.
This four-movement piece, though still rather early, influenced the later Impressionist works of Debussy and Ravel in its evocation (and to an extent, creation) of a distinctly French style of composition.
If you enjoy this sonata and the others by the French composers on this list, try out the Lekeu and Poulenc violin sonatas as well.
This is a recording of Pinchas Zukerman and Marc Neikrug:
10. Maurice Ravel: Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 2 (1923–27)
The final violin sonata included on this list is also by a treasured French Impressionist, Maurice Ravel. His three-movement work is perhaps most famous for the American jazz and blues-inspired second movement.
The first movement is chillingly beautiful, not so much sentimental as objectively striking. Themes throughout the work are revisited in the culmination of the work, the brilliant final movement Perpetuum mobile.
Here is my favourite live recording of the second movement by David Oistrakh and Vsevold Petrushansky: