A string player before he was a composer, Matthew Barnson wrote his first mature violin sonata as the culmination of a longstanding ambition, and he intends to write at least two more. He points to Berio and Britten as inspirations for the form of the piece, which is built around a high drone: a treble E persists throughout as a sort of pedal point through all four sections.
We can also use the Britten/Berio references to understand the way the piece functions dramatically. As in the music of Berio, Barnson’s language is more gestural than melodic—the piece is organized less around the recurrence of certain tunes than around certain effects, such as oscillations between two pitches, or (as in the very opening) between the same pitch on two strings of the violin.
But as in the music of Britten, the language of the piece is unmistakably rooted in tonality. Britten was also conscious of the sentimental possibilities of a persistent harmonic figure, as we hear in both that relentless E and, even more clearly, in the piece’s second section, “Gymnopédie–Passacaglia”; the same is certainly true of Barnson, a careful student of Baroque music. He describes this piece as the product of a personal crisis, and much of its expressive power is derived between the tension between the soaring, sighing lines that each instrument explores, and the inexorable patterns to which they return.
-Daniel Stephen Johnson