Critical Notes Series: Henle Curriculum

Every other school year I teach a 400-level class called "String Literature Survey" at Bob Jones University in Greenville, SC. This class is designed for string majors to learn about sonatas from 1700 to 2000, starting with Corelli's violin sonatas and ending with my Sonatensatz. We cover a large range of topics including style, technique, form, the collaboration between composer and artist, etc. My main goal is for the students to be well-versed in the sonata genre. The choice of teaching exclusively sonatas was personal. We also talk about concertos and concert pieces, but not in-depth. Covering all genres would be surfacy and overwhelming.

Building a curriculum for this class was not easy. The literature about strings strongly favors violin; however, I have students who also play viola and cello. After exploring different options, I settled on the core curriculum to include Melvin Berger's Guide to Sonatas, Abram Loft's Violin and Keyboard, and a set of Henle prefaces. Together, these texts create a balanced view of the pieces that we study.

Berger's text is a good overview of the sonatas in general. Some of the information is outdated, but I believe this text serves as a good primer. As I teach the students to think critically, we learn to point out outdated or erroneous information. Berger also does not Saint-Saens and some other composers we talk about.

Loft's 2-volume set takes a deep look at works for violin. I also like Loft's writing style, something that works well as a starting point for my students as they learn to write about music. However, Loft is antagonistic and unhelpful with works by Saint-Saens, D'indy, and others; this is very disappointing since his overview of most standard violin works is superb. Loft does not mention Poulenc's violin sonata.

Henle prefaces vary in writing style and information from editor to editor, but they all contain information useful for research, which prepares my students for master's and doctoral programs. Henle's text also needs to be balanced out because, for example, Brahms's Cello Sonata, Op. 38 does not mention a connection to Bach's The Art of the Fugue when there is a clear connection. This is where Berger's text is helpful. Nevertheless, the Henle text is generally well-researched. Another perk of using Henle prefaces is that students make a connection between the scholarship and the edition, which builds discernment.

When we come to 20th-century sonatas, we use texts from biographies. For example, we read Barbara Heyman's Barber biography about the cello sonata. Both the cello sonata and cello concerto are covered in great depth. For Poulenc, we read Wilfrid Mellers's Poulenc biography, which covers his sonatas. For Shostakovich, we read Elizabeth Wilson's Shostakovich biography. For some composers like John Corigliano and William Bolcom, we read the personal writings of those composers.

We finish the class with a look at my Sonatensatz which I wrote in 2003 and revised several times for various performances.

Students choose a sonata that we didn't cover in class for their term papers. The choices in this regard are limitless. Typically, students end up choosing a sonata for their senior recital as a result of taking this class.