John Ireland's Sonata No. 2 in A minor for violin and piano is, quite simply, one of the most important works composed in Britain during World War I -- this is war music to the core, full of violence and destruction, of anguish and ghastly militarism, but more important, of hope. Ireland himself was not sure that he had remained within the bounds of musical good taste when composing the piece -- many friends heard him worrying that he had "gone too far." But after the work's very successful 1917 premiere his fears were forgotten: the work was immediately added to the then very small list of genuine British chamber music triumphs. Both performers at the premiere wore military dress, not because they sought to drive home the ideas of the piece, but because they were in active service and had had to get special leave to give the concert.
There is no tone painting per se in the sonata; nor is there a story line. The war that then engulfed Britain manifested itself in Ireland's music in general rather than specific terms, and in doing so lent greater power and durability to his efforts. First and foremost, this is well-written music: the two players work hand in hand from start to finish, lyric lines are beautifully crafted, and the architectural drama would be immediately appreciated by a composer from a century earlier who had never even imagined such a thing as World War I. There are three movements: 1. Allegro, 2. Poco lento quasi adagio, 3. In tempo moderato -- Con brio.
Martial-sounding quartal/quintal harmonies fill the opening of the aggressively-paced first movement; great sweeps of motion build to a crashing climax that dissolves away into a hushed, pianissimo, F major second subject -- a mirage of tranquility, imagined, not real, that is soon fractured by the strangled, pedal point-driven development. (There is some echo of the Brahms Violin Sonata No. 3 first movement development, though how Ireland thought about any relation between the two pieces is anyone's guess.)
As the Poco lento begins, we must wait a while to hear the real theme of the movement; first there is a gasping opening thought that spans the whole range of the violin in short order, shifting and chromatic. The actual theme, by contrast, radiates a warm E flat major light. The finale shifts gears several times, moving from the declamatory moderato to a Con brio that is exactly twice as fast, then back and forth between the two several more times until the fortissimo blast of holy A major calls an end to the piece (and probably, in Ireland's mind, the war as well).