The 20 best violin pieces ever written
13 June 2023, 18:40 | Updated: 14 June 2023, 12:43
Violinists: how many of these have you attempted? This list will take you through the very best pieces ever written for the violin.
From concertos to sonatas, composers throughout the centuries have written some of the very best melodies in the classical repertoire for the violin.
Here’s our exploration of some of the most memorable pieces ever written for the much-loved string instrument.
Read more: The 25 greatest violinists of all time
Bach – Partita No. 2, Chaconne
Few moments in music are as dramatic as the opening from this devilishly tricky, unaccompanied work: the ‘Chaconne’ from Bach’s Partita No.2. Those jagged chords, the unease and subsequent joy of resolution… it’s too much to bear. Here’s American violin virtuoso Hilary Hahn, making it sound easy:
Johann Sebastian Bach - Chaconne, Partita No. 2 BWV 1004 | Hilary Hahn
Vivaldi – The Four Seasons
Vivaldi has done more for the violin than most thanks to this ubiquitous set of concertos, containing thrilling musical representations of the seasons. While a passionate thunderstorm rattles through ‘Summer’, high-pitched plucking in the strings represent the cold and icy rain in ‘Winter’.
Vivaldi's 'Winter' from the Arctic Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra
Bruch – Violin Concerto No. 1
Although the technical challenges are very much there for any violinist, the real joy of this concerto, a perennial favourite in the Classic FM Hall of Fame, is the exuberance. Nailing that capricious nature is just as tricky as the notes themselves, but once you’ve got, well… you’re doing well.
Maxim Vengerov plays Bruch Violin Concerto No. 1 (2021)
Amy Beach – Violin Sonata
Amy Beach was an American composer born in 1867. She was well-respected in her lifetime, but sadly her works have been rather neglected since. Her Violin Sonata is a beautiful example of her Romantic style, packing passion, virtuosity and haunting melodies into its three movements.
Amy Beach - Violin Sonata op. 34. Vera Vaidman - violin, Emanuel Krasovsky - piano.
Vaughan Williams – The Lark Ascending
Inspired by a George Meredith poem, Vaughan Williams’ pastoral masterpiece is a perennial chart-topper that every year finds its way to the top of the Classic FM Hall of Fame. Star British violinist Jennifer Pike said of the English composer: “I think the way he writes for the violin is amazing.
“The way the first few cadenzas start with just this violin from a low point, getting higher and higher. And the poem talks about the lark getting ever higher and higher in this silver chain of sound.
“It’s this sense of stillness, that everybody has stopped,” she added. “I can’t describe how special it is to play it.”
Jennifer Pike performs The Lark Ascending by Vaughan Willams
Beethoven - Violin Sonata No. 9 (‘Kreutzer’)
Being the emotional melting pot he was, Beethoven’s character switches in this charge sonata are even more pronounced than usual. And while he managed to deploy all these emotional colours beautifully in the main areas of his work, something about the intimacy of violin and piano here show him in his rawest light.
Yuja Wang & Joshua Bell : Beethoven - Violin Sonata No. 9 "Kreutzer" Opus 47
Williams – Schindler’s List
For all the moments of movie bombast he’s soundtracked over the years, it’s actually for one of his quieter moments for which John Williams is rightly respected. This haunting, folky melody is deceptively simple and, given the context of Steven Spielberg’s film, absolutely heartbreaking.
Classic FM Live: John Williams' Schindler's List theme by violinist Braimah Kanneh-Mason
Lili Boulanger – Nocturne
Lili Boulanger, a French composer and the first female winner of the Prix de Rome composition prize, died at the age of just 24, after years of being consistently troubled by chronic illness.
Before her tragically early death, Boulanger composed some remarkably beautiful melodies, including her ‘Nocturne’ for violin and piano composed when she was just 18. A real showpiece for solo violin, the ‘Nocturne’ is delicately coloured and gently chromatic in places, and gradually becomes more virtuosic as the texture thickens.
Lili Boulanger Nocturne pour violon et piano (1911), Savitri Grier (violin), Richard Uttley (piano)
Bartók – Violin Concerto No. 2
Under constant attack for his anti-fascist views in his native Hungary, Bartók’s confused state of mind runs through this rich and tricky concerto. From his occasional 12-tone themes to the shattering climax, it’s a technical workout like no other, but with crucial, fiery context for the performer to get their head around.
Béla Bartók - Violinkonzert Nr. 2 | Isabelle Faust | Cristian Măcelaru | WDR Sinfonieorchester
Chevalier de Saint-Georges – Violin Concerto in G major
Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges was a man of many talents. The 18th-century composer, was also a violin virtuoso, a conductor, a huntsman and a champion swordsman. He originally composed his Violin Concerto in G major for himself, like many of his works for the solo string instrument, and his writing gives the soloist a chance to display their virtuosity in fast passages, frequent use of double stops, and a dramatic cadenza. This concerto in particular was released as a single on the soundtrack of the 2023 biopic, Chevalier, performed by American star violinist, Randall Goosby.
Violin Concerto in G Major, Op. 8, No. 2: I. Allegro (From "Chevalier"/Visualizer Video)
Biber – Mystery Sonatas
This set of 15 pieces for violin have, as their title suggests, a slightly mystical air about them. But aside from that, Biber’s skill as a violinist was absolutely essential to its composition. An innovator of the time, Biber was simply able to play things that other violinists couldn’t – and the Mystery Sonatas show him as his strongest.
Dmitry Sinkovsky - Biber Mystery Sonatas - The Presentation
Paganini – Caprice No. 24
Standing statuesque at the pinnacle of many people’s idea of the perfect expression of the violin’s strengths, Paganini’s Caprice No. 24 for solo violin has more technical wizardry in one piece than most other composers utilise in a whole career.
David Garrett - Paganini Caprice Nº 24 [concert].
Sibelius – Violin Concerto
Much is made of the final movement of Sibelius’ one and only violin concerto, but there’s equal heft and beauty in the first two. A competition circuit favourite for violinists looking to establish themselves, it’s a perennial showstopper.
Sibelius : Concerto pour violon (Hilary Hahn)
Brahms – Violin Sonata No. 3
Written late in the composer’s career, this final violin sonata contains all the melancholic splendour you’d imagine, but also some of Brahms’ sweetest melodies. Played well, it’ll sweep the violinist along just as much as the audience.
Joshua Bell and Jeremy Denk Perform Brahms 'Violin Sonata No. 3 in D minor'
Glass – Violin Concerto No. 1
It divides opinion with critics and fans alike, but Philip Glass’ lasting contribution to the violin repertoire certainly has hypnotic power. Whether you find it grating or intoxicating, it’s stimulated debate more than almost any other piece on our list.
MSU Symphony Orchestra - Philip Glass' Violin Concerto No. 1 feat. Yvonne Lam, Violin | 9.27.2019
Saint-Saëns – Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso
Written originally for the great Spanish virtuoso, Pablo de Sarasate (who features in this list in his own right), this spectacular work is legendary among violinists for its passages of insane arpeggios in the early stages.
Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso Op.28, Saint-Saëns - Ray Chen & Malta Philharmonic Orchestra
Clara Schumann – Three Romances for Violin and Piano
Clara Schumann was best known in her day as one of the world’s greatest piano virtuosos. But in this trio of chamber works you can hear her natural talent when it comes to writing for the violin as well. Clara went on tour performing these pieces with the great violinist Joseph Joachim – and they even played them for King George V of Hanover who is said to have been “completely ecstatic” when he heard them.
Clara-Jumi Kang: C. Schumann, Three Romances for violin and piano, Op. 22
Sarasate – Zigeunerweisen
Everyone violinist’s dream party piece. Sarasate’s fiendish, exciting encore number is almost custom-built for finishing a concert and as such is renowned for its fireworks…
Itzhak Perlman Sarasate Zigeunerweisen
Tchaikovsky – Violin Concerto in D major
A favourite among soloists, Tchaikovsky’s only violin concerto was composed in 1878, following the breakdown of his marriage the year prior. Despite not being a violinist himself, the Russian composer wrote the 35-minute work in just one month, aided by Yosif Kotek, a young virtuoso of the instrument. Scholars muse Kotek was perhaps also at one time a lover of the 19th-century composer. Tchaikovsky reportedly wanted to dedicate the concerto to the young male violinist, but worried about this act inciting gossip. Filled with romantic melodies, and tender lyricism, the concerto can’t help but reveal some of the feelings perhaps felt by the composer during its composition.
Julia Fischer - Tchaikovsky - Violin Concerto in D major, Op 35
Ysaÿe – Violin Sonata No. 3
Each of Ysaÿe’s sonatas in this set were dedicated to a legendary contemporary violinist of his, and this case it was the great Georges Enescu. Here’s a stunning performance of his Sonata No.3 by Classic FM 2023 Rising Star, Chloe Chua.
Ysaÿe : Sonata in D minor, Ballade, Op. 27, No. 3