Grade 4 Violin

Grade 4 Violin Pieces

In this long article we will be learning all about current grade 4 violin pieces. In a previous post we explored the scales and technical requirements for violin students at grade 4 level. Of course, scales are the foundation of any music exam. They’re also the foundation of competence on the instrument more generally. But we don’t learn them for their own sake. We learn them so that we can play music. In this post we will explore grade 4 violin pieces for 2020. If you would like to know about any of them, feel free to contact me and I’ll point you in the right direction. To take any official exam, you have to purchase the original materials, either ABRSM or Trinity . We will deal with the selections in four categories:

  1. Early (Traditional and Baroque)
  2. Romantic
  3. Modern

Remember, it’s up to you to choose a balanced program of three items. This means that you shouldn’t select three baroque pieces, or three slow pieces, or three pieces in the same key. Part of what the examiner is looking for is your knowledge of, and enthusiasm for, music through the ages. That’s why this post will include a lot of detail about the composers and their times. Also, we’ll consider the context of the works we will be reviewing. Most importantly, don’t choose on the basis that a certain piece is “easier”. The selection panel have chosen each piece to bring out a specific skill, or to highlight particular aspects of music. Go with pieces that you like, because you’re more likely to be able to motivate yourself to put in the hard work it will require to get a good score in your exam.

Which Syllabus is Better?

This is a question people often ask me and it’s very hard to answer. This isn’t because I want to be evasive or because I have a stake in either examination body. But there are so many considerations that go into making a decision here that it really does depend on the individual. In my view, it’s best to allow your personal taste to guide you. This will help you to maintain your focus through the arduous process of preparing for the exam.

My initial impressions of the two syllabi were all good. I liked the variety on offer and I especially liked the fact that both of them foreground less well known composers. I think it’s a travesty to play a piece of music without knowing something – as much you can, ideally – about the person who worked so hard to create it. So I welcome the opportunity to learn about new figures in music history, for myself and for my students. Another strength of both syllabi is the variety of genres. Both syllabi include a Latin-American piece, which is a great addition to any exam program.

Differences in Emphasis

The Trinity syllabus is certainly Baroque-heavy, with five of the pieces on offer falling within the realm of the Baroque. I have no objection to this, because I think that Baroque music works wonders for technique. The ABRSM syllabus has more to offer in terms of Romantic repertoire. This, too, provides great opportunities for development in terms of musical interpretation and technical issues like vibrato.

Grade 4 Violin Pieces: Early (Traditional)

This is my personal favourite category. I love folk music and music in different idioms from around the world. In most exam syllabi, the “traditional” pieces are grouped with the Baroque. There might be some good reasons for this, but I don’t know what they are. Personally I think they are completely different and that it’s a shame to force a choice between the two (you can only choose one piece in each style). On the other hand, there’s nothing stopping you from just learning them all. Luckily, there are some great pieces in this cycle. What I really love about the “traditional” genre is that there’s no attribution to a single composer. The cult of personality that typifies so much of canonical music history recedes and we just get an image of the life of a community in a time and place.

This category also contains my very favourite selection of all grade 4 syllabi: The Crystal Spring. You can hear this piece in the video below. The other piece is “Portsmouth” in an arrangement by Edward Huws Jones. These pieces are totally different. If you are an ABRSM candidate, Portsmouth will fit well into your program if you want to start off with something energetic. If you are a Trinity candidate, The Crystal Spring will bring a contemplative, nostalgic quality to your program.

The Crystal Spring

This piece is in E flat major, which means we have three flats: B, E and A. There is also an octave shift into fourth position. However, what makes this tricky is that our key signature means we have to be in a kind of half position. Our first finger on the A string should sound an E flat, rather than an E. Fortunately we have some time to get into position, with the second finger playing a B flat on the D string.

Portsmouth

This piece is in F major and it’s lively throughout. There are some bow markings indicating an accented staccato. There are also some arpeggio figures that you have to execute quite rapidly and accurately. In the video below you’ll see me sightread it and I’ll admit, it’s more brisk than I thought. Anchors aweigh!

With that, we have covered all the pieces in the Traditional category. Of course, you don’t have to choose one of these for your exam. But if you do, either of these would be a wonderful addition to your program. Before you make your choice, though, make sure you read on to learn about the Baroque selections. For ABRSM, the Traditional and Baroque pieces are in the same list (List A) so you have to choose between them. In the Trinity syllabus, it’s possible to have a Traditional and a Baroque piece in your program, but make sure you keep things varied. A good exam program is one that demonstrates range.

Grade 4 Violin Pieces: Early (Baroque)

The Baroque period is the time in Western art that follows the Renaissance. The medieval world is gone and the early modern era has begun. If you’ve been here for any length of time you’ll know I have mixed feelings about the Baroque. But there can be no doubt that the period saw an explosion of creativity in the arts and sciences. We use the term “Baroque” to talk about the period starting roughly around the beginning of the 17th century (1600AD) and ending in the mid 18th (1750AD). Towards its end, the ebullience and, frankly, decadence, of the Baroque yields to a new moment, the “Classical”. In the Classical period we see a reaction to all of this frilly nonsense and a return to form. But what frilly nonsense it is! Check in on this page again in a few days to see the Baroque selections for grade 4 violin.

Vivaldi: Gavotta

To kick of the Baroque section, let’s look at this Vivaldi excerpt from Trinity. Vivaldi was Venetian. Venice is famous for its period of extreme opulence, decadence and, frankly, piracy, during the Renaissance and Enlightenment. It’s in this period that Vivaldi lived. He himself was a priest and teacher. His music is full of colour and energy. You’ve definitely heard this great work of his before, even if you can’t name it. In this piece we hear a gavotte, a rustic dance style from the south of France. For Vivaldi, keep your quavers clear and your semiquavers regular, like clockwork. Allow the harmony to do all the talking – you shouldn’t disturb the music too much by stretching the tempo or adding in your own emotions.

Corrette: Allegro

This composer lived entirely in the 18th century (1707 – 1795AD). He came from Rouen, in Normandy. This is the northern part of France that has been the backdrop for some of the most momentous occasions in world history. Corrette was a prolific composer who came from a musical family. His father was an organist and he himself wrote books on musical method. This selection comes from one of his many sonatas for violin. Here we have some ornaments to show off our dexterity: trills and mordents. I sightread it for you in the video below. More importantly, I included some footage of Mont Saint-Michel, which is a place that you need to know about:

Diego Ortiz: Passamezzo

Diego Ortiz lived in the 16th century, so he’s on the border between Renaissance and Baroque. He was Spanish, probably from Toledo, but he worked for a Neapolitan nobleman. As a result, he spent most of his life in Italy. In the latest grade 4 syllabus from Trinity we have his Passamezzo in an arrangement by Huws Jones. The passamezzo is a dance style from the late Renaissance. In this piece you can hear the medieval peaking through the layers of Renaissance affectation, particularly in the modulation from G major (the tonic) to F major. It’s an agile, feisty piece of music that recalls a brighter era.

Giuseppe Valentini: Presto

Valentini, as his name suggests, was a violinist in Rome. His life straddled the 17th and 18th centuries AD, so he fits quite well in the frame we have set for the Baroque era. One of his pieces features in the ABRSM grade 4 syllabus. It’s the Presto movement of one of his violin sonatas. He gave the sonatas the name Allettamenti, which means something like “enticement” or “attraction”. As you can imagine, this music is full of the mischief and absurd flimflammery of a Baroque bon-vivant. Unusual harmonic progressions and strange rhythmic pairings typify this collection. Thankfully, this arrangement is manageable and it’s a great introduction to the Italian Baroque. Articulation is key: detached quavers, fluid semiquavers. All position shifts must be discreet and smooth!

Boismortier: Gigue

Joseph Bodin de Boismortier was an example of something quite rare: a musician who was also a shrewd businessman. By all accounts he was spectacularly successful. His music was much loved by the people, and he had a licence to engrave his own music, so he didn’t rely on publishers. The instrument that most people associate him with is the flute, and certainly the modern flute is the perfect instrument for the French Baroque. This style is florid, translucent, opulent and intricate. Try as we might, violins simply cannot beat flutes on their home turf.

This arrangement of one of Boismortier’s gigues is the only unaccompanied piece in either syllabus. Playing without an accompaniment is freeing, but it also comes with its own challenges. The piece is light, agile and has some tricky finger patterns that must all sound effortless.

Saint-George: Giga

I envy George Saint-George for two reasons. The first is obvious: his name. What a privilege to be named for the great saint, and twice at that! The second reason is that he played the viola d’amore, literally the viola of love. This is an instrument that we don’t really see much anymore. It’s similar to a violin or viola, but it has up to 7 strings. Some of these are “sympathetic” meaning that their purpose is simply to resonate and provide a harmonic underlay. Violas d’amore are famous for their ornate scrolls, often in the shape of a mythical figure or a beautiful woman. This piece is from one Saint-George’s nostalgic suites looking back at pre-revolutionary France. Personally, I hate the revolution and I consider the very act of making beautiful music to be a little counter-revolution. Let the little counter-revolutions abound!

Grade 4 Violin Pieces: Romantic

Romanticism is something we’ve discussed many times on this site. You can find my thoughts here and here. While it’s difficult to define this phenomenon precisely, we can talk about it in broad terms. The Romantic era is the time of rebellion. Emotion overrides form, the nation state overrides the empire. Music in this period is often nationalistic in character. The orchestra has grown to a huge size and composers and musicians have become major celebrities. As far as I’m concerned, this is all a bit silly. But some of the music that emerges in this period is irreplaceable.

Bohm: Petite Rhapsodie Hongroise

The first romantic piece we are going to look at is featured in the ABRSM syllabus. It’s a Hungarian Rhapsody, inspired by works of that name by the great Franz Liszt. This music is full of colour and drama and it portrays something of the Hungarian character. In the video you’ll see the Hungarian flag – so easy to confuse with the Italian! To really get familiar with this genre, you should do some listening homework. Seek out any of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies, Brahms’ Hungarian Dances and Chopin’s Mazurkas.

Grieg: Solveigs Sang

This selection also comes from the ABRSM syllabus and I think it is one of the best choices for 2020. It’s Solveigs Sang from Grieg’s immortal Peer Gynt, a suite of pieces he wrote as incidental music for Ibsen’s play of the same name. Incidental music is music that accompanies a stage production. You can think of it like the 19th century version of a movie soundtrack. Just like a film score, this piece is all about atmosphere, mystery and drama. Solveig, alone in the Norwegian mountains, sings this song to her beloved Peer as he wanders the globe. If you need something mysterious and mature for your program, this is it!

Dancla: Romance

This grade 4 violin piece is pleasant, serene and emotive. Charles Dancla was a French violinist who composed many works that intermediate violin students can access. This piece needs sensitivity of expression, vibrato and sustained notes.

Grade 4 Violin Pieces: Modern

The modern category for grade 4 violin pieces encompasses many different styles. These include Jazz, Latin and Musical Theatre. What these disparate styles have in common is the primacy of interpretation and character. Unlike the Baroque, in which form governs everything, these genres allow more freedom to the performer. This doesn’t mean that it’s a free-for-all or that technique doesn’t matter. If anything, this music has an even broader palette of techniques to master: vibrato, glissando, tremolo and others. Your exam program should include one piece in this category.

Tailor: El Choclo

The first piece we will look at is Norman Tailor’s El Choclo. It’s in the Trinity syllabus. The word itself means “the corn” in Spanish and the first time it was used for a piece of music was in 1903AD, in Buenos Aires. This version is a cheeky, angular tango. Like all tangos, precision is important here. The music imitates the precise, choppy, even aggressive footwork of an Argentine tango. Counting is imperative. There are also several interesting position shifts indicated in the music, including second position. This is a challenging little piece and it will bring some fun to your program.

Wedgwood: Sometime Maybe

This is the only jazz piece in the offerings for 2020, and it’s in the ABRSM book. It’s got all the features you would expect in a jazz ballad: plush chords, lazy swing and plenty of opportunities for portamento. This piece is really a dialogue between the violin and the piano, the two instruments coming together as equal partners. The piano even gets a long solo in the middle. The challenge in this style of music is not the notes, which are quite straightforward. What’s difficult is conjuring the right mood and getting both instruments to work together cohesively. This is a great choice if you need something a little more laid back and light hearted.

Bart: Where is Love?

Musical theatre is a genre that is both ancient and modern. The ancients produced plays in which characters alternated between spoken dialogue and song. Similarly, musical theatre in our time combines drama, music, visual art and dance in a way that allegories contemporary issues, struggles and cultural moments. The musical Oliver is an interpretation of Dickens’ Oliver Twist. I’m sure Dickens, ever the moralist, would have appreciated seeing his novel treated in this way. This piece is all about drama, sustained notes, warm tone. You must play as if you are singing. Harder than it sounds:

Farrés: Quizás, quizás, quizás

This piece is a lot of fun to play. If you need some Cuban flavour to jazz up your grade 4 violin program, then this is an obvious choice. This song has been covered by many artists including Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole and Doris Day.

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