36 Best Violin Solos of All Time (played by 36 different violinist soloists)

by | Jun 1, 2022 | 0 comments

Listen to the most beautiful violin solo pieces ever written

We cover centuries of violin music with examples from the greatest violinists

What is a violin solo?

A violin solo is simply any time one violinist is the featured performer. After the piano, violin is the most commonly featured solo instrument in classical music, due to its singing tone, wide range, and the many different effects the player can create.

Violin solos do not have to be any set length, and range anywhere from three minutes to an hour. In classical music, they are traditionally divided into three main categories: solo violin with orchestra, where the featured violinist stands in front of the orchestra next to the conductor; solo violin with piano; and unaccompanied violin, where no other performer or instrument is included.

The following list of 36 pieces contains some of the best classical violin solos from all three categories. All violin solo performances are by different violin soloists, so you get to know some of the greatest violinists of the past and present.

Best violin concertos

(or “concerti,” if you want to get technical about it)

The first violin concertos were written at the end of the 1600s, and the art form has been developing ever since. In most classical violin concertos, the soloist is accompanied by either a string orchestra (violins, violas, cellos, and double basses) or by a symphony orchestra (strings plus woodwinds, brass, and sometimes percussion). Other combinations exist however, such as Lou Harrison’s Concerto for Violin and Percussion Orchestra. Concertos are typically divided into three movements, alternating fast-slow-fast. The major concertos listed below are considered some of the most demanding pieces in classical violin repertoire because of the technical ability and stamina required.

#1 Violin Concerto by Samuel Barber

I was too impatient to save the best for last, so had to start this list off with my absolute favorite violin concerto. American composer Samuel Barber wrote this gorgeous concerto in 1939, and the piece reflects the uncertainty of the times. The lush, romantic first two movements are filled with nostalgia and unanswered questions. The frantic third movement, which Barber added later, is an incredible challenge to both soloist and orchestra. Listen to it here played by Anne Akiko-Meyers, who has performed it over 1,000 times.

#2 Violin Concerto No. 1 in G Minor by Max Bruch

This concerto has long been a favorite among audiences. In fact, Bruch was envied and insulted by fellow composers during his life because of this work’s popularity. His detractors were ultimately ignored, however, as it still remains a concert hall staple and mandatory repertoire for serious students.

#3 Violin Concerto in D Major by Ludwig Van Beethoven

Clocking in at a cool 45 minutes long, the Beethoven Concerto is considered one of the most challenging in the repertoire, and a major accomplishment for anyone who learns it. In the beginning, the orchestra plays an intro lasting over two minutes, which gives the soloist plenty of time to stand there in front of the audience wondering if his or her entrance will sound good. In this recording by violin super-star Hilary Hahn, however, you probably won’t notice her worrying. After you watch this recording, check out her Germany debut where she played the same piece at the age of fifteen (!).

#4 Violin Concerto in D Major by Johannes Brahms

Like the Beethoven Concerto, the opening of this piece sounds as though Brahms started writing a symphony and then suddenly remembered he was supposed to be writing a violin concerto. When the soloist finally does come in, he does it in style with some fiery runs and perfectly tuned double-stops (playing more than one string at once). It may not be as melodic or violin-centered as Beethoven’s but the sheer amount of energy in the work is breathtaking.

#5 Violin Concerto in D Minor by Jean Sibelius

When Sibelius premiered the original version of this piece in his native Finland in 1904, he had just finished writing it. Although Sibelius had enough time, unfortunately the violinist performing it didn’t, and the debut was a disaster. Sibelius revised the concerto to make it “easier,” and this new version was performed much more successfully in 1905. It is still one of the most difficult concertos, which is perhaps why it requires special permission from the Sibelius family to play the original harder version.

#6 Violin Concerto in D Major by Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Okay, I know you’re wondering at this point why so many violin concertos are in the key of D, but maybe that’s a subject for another article. Tchaikovsky wrote this concerto while trying to recover from depression, and it is heart-on-your-sleeve, alternating between deep reflection and unrestrained joy.

#7 Violin Concerto in E Minor by Felix Mendelssohn

Classical music lovers can debate endlessly about what the four greatest violin concertos are, but you can be sure Mendelssohn’s will be on the list. Written in 1844, it incorporates the best of both traditional classical styles and Mendelssohn’s budding romanticism. And in case you were wondering, Mendelssohn also wrote a little-known Violin Concerto in D Minor earlier that is also worth a listen.

#8 Violin Concerto in G Major by W. A. Mozart

Most of the warhorse concertos listed here are from the Romantic era (beginning in the late 18th century) but Mozart’s violin concertos are the most famous of the earlier Classical era. Although he wrote five, only the later three are frequently performed.  His third one is not the most challenging, but it has a playful, childlike charm and memorable themes.

#9 Violin Concerto in A Minor by Antonin Dvorak

This concerto is not as familiar to the general concert audience as Bruch or Mendelssohn, but it is certainly on equal footing musically. Dvorak wrote the piece in 1879 after meeting Joseph Joachim, who was one of the most prominent violinists of his day. Sadly, Joachim didn’t like some parts of the piece, and so Dvorak never heard him perform it in public. Fortunately, soloists now realize that it is an important and deserving work.

#10 Symphonie Espagnole by Edouard Lalo

This one is different: violin concertos traditionally have three movements, but this has five. The first one is the most famous. This work started a period where Spanish-themed music was all the rage, and it inspired Tchaikovksy to create his own violin concerto.

#11 The Four Seasons by Antonio Vivaldi

Do you know how many violin concertos Vivaldi wrote? That’s right, two hundred and thirty. He’s credited with making the concerto form popular, and his work is still popular three hundred years later. The Four Seasons is actually a set of four complete violin concertos, each with three movements. Every movement describes a particular country scene Vivaldi would have witnessed in his native Italy as the seasons changed.

Best violin performance pieces

Concertos are divided into three movements and follow a very specific form. Performance pieces (or showpieces), on the other hand, are a single movement, and can be in whatever form the composer chooses. They usually contain lots of technical fireworks that show off the soloist’s skill. Many soloists play one as an encore after finishing a concerto, since performance pieces are generally shorter. These pieces are played either with full orchestral accompaniment or with piano only.

#1 The Lark Ascending by Ralph Vaughan Williams

This piece is very different from any other on this list. It is inspired by an 1881 poem by English poet George Meredith, an ode to the beauty and symbolism of the skylark. In this contemplative and transcendent piece, the violin trills and soars above the orchestra, raising the listener’s soul with it.

#2 Méditation de Thaïs by Jules Massenet

This is the only other “slow piece” in this section, yet it is one of the most beautiful and popular violin solos. It was originally part of the opera Thaïs, which tells the story of how a holy monk convinces a young, wealthy, pagan girl to leave her life of luxury and find salvation in God. This violin solo is performed between the scenes of Act II. After listening, check out the whole opera.

 

#3 Zigeunerweisen by Pablo de Sarasate

Pablo de Sarasate was one of the most beloved violinists of the early 20th century. Like many violin soloists of that time (including Fritz Kreisler and Henryk Wieniawski) he wrote many of the pieces he performed. “Zigeunerweisen” means “gypsy meadows,” which is exactly what the piece sounds like. If you enjoy this work, you will love diving into the world of Sarasate’s fiery compositions.

 

#4 Czardas by V. Monti

This is one of the first showpieces every violin student learns. This is a fun piece to perform because it is perfectly fine to improvise the solo part a little bit to fit the spirit of the piece. It is also wonderful for practicing spiccato bowing, which involves playing very fast separate sixteenth notes while letting the bow bounce off the string. If you can master that technique, this work is a great introduction to showpieces.

 

#5 Tzigane by Maurice Ravel

Originally composed just for violin and piano, this work is now often performed with full orchestra. “Tzigane” is derived from the generic European term for “gypsy,” which is the style Ravel strove to imitate in this piece. It is not as melodic or catchy as Czardas, but it is incredibly virtuosic and has a powerful emotional effect in the hands of a master. Listen here to a vintage recording by the great Jascha Heifetz.

#6 La Ronde Des Lutins by Antonio Bazzini

Antonio Ba-who? Almost no-one has ever heard of this Italian composer, even though he was one of the most eminent violinists of the 19th century. Today he is only remembered by the few very advanced violinists who can even play his flashy encore Dance of the Goblins. Even if you’ve never heard of Bazzini, you’ve probably heard of the violinist playing in this recording.

#7 Polonaise in D Major by Henryk Wieniawski

Wieniawski was another 19th-century violinist-composer who wowed audiences in both Europe and America. Although he died at the age of 45, the intense power of his compositions lives on. This is a particularly exuberant recording of his Polonaise in D Major. Additionally, Wieniawski wrote several other showpieces, a collection of challenging caprices, and two major violin concertos.

#8 Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso by Camille Saint-Saens

Saint-Saens dedicated this work to Pablo de Sarasate. It has a distinct Spanish flavor; you can almost see the bullfighters strutting in during the main theme. Incredibly dramatic and evocative, it is a favorite among advanced students and major soloists. The recording below is performed by Christian Li, a world-famous soloist who is currently thirteen years old. His performance really brings out the energy and joy in the piece.

#9 Carmen Fantasy by Sarasate

Another work by Sarasate, this piece contains plenty of familiar tunes (with a fancy violinistic twist) if you love the opera Carmen. After listening to it, compare it to the Carmen Fantasie by Franz Waxman, who composed his own version for the 1946 movie Humoresque.

Best violin sonatas

The main difference between a sonata and a concerto is that the concerto is accompanied by an orchestra, while the sonata is accompanied by just one instrument (usually piano) or unaccompanied. All the sonatas listed here are for violin and piano, so keep reading for the best unaccompanied violin sonatas later on.

#1 Violin Sonata in G Minor “The Devil’s Trill” by Giuseppe Tartini

Although stylistically very different from the later Romantic sonatas, it still includes many challenges, such as double-stop trills. The story behind this piece is almost as interesting as the piece itself. Here, violinist Frank Almond explains the history of the piece and plays some excerpts. Oh yeah, and he’s playing it on the Stradivarius once owned by Tartini.

#2 Sonata No. 3 in D Minor by Johannes Brahms

If you don’t feel ready for the intensity of Brahms’s violin concerto, his three violin sonatas are a good way to get a feel for his style. His third sonata is extremely lyrical in the first two movements. In the third movement the pianist gets a chance to shine, and it closes with a virtuosic final movement.

#3 Violin Sonata in A Major by Cesar Franck

Belgian composer Cesar Franck composed this in 1886 as a wedding present for the young violin virtuoso Eugene Ysaye. Franck was not at the wedding, but a friend of his presented the piece to Ysaye the morning of. After one quick rehearsal with his new sister-in-law, Ysaye performed the piece for his guests, and kept it in his repertoire for the next forty years.

#4 Violin Sonata in G Minor by Claude Debussy

You’ve probably heard of Debussy,or at least you’ve heard of his most popular work, Clair de Lune. This violin sonata is the last piece he wrote, and a wonderful example of impressionism, a style that explores color changes, chromaticism, and unusual effects.

#5 Violin Sonata No. 9 in A Major “Kreutzer” by Beethoven

It’s really too bad that Beethoven only wrote one violin concerto, but he made up for that by writing ten violin sonatas. Although his ninth sonata is dedicated to violinist Rudolphe Kreutzer, Kreutzer never performed the work and called it “outrageously unintelligible.” It is, however, frequently performed today, despite its technical difficulty and unusual length. Beethoven’s other two most famous violin sonatas are No. 5 nicknamed the “Spring” sonata, and No. 8 in G Major.

#6 Violin Sonata No. 2 in D Major by Sergei Prokofiev

Originally a flute sonata, Prokofiev composed a violin version in 1944 at the request of his friend David Oistrakh. It contains the grace and lyricism of a flute sonata with the technical flair of a great solo violin piece. Prokofiev also wrote another violin sonata and a violin concerto.

#7 Violin Sonata in D Major by George F. Händel

Handel wrote sonatas for many instruments including violin, flute, oboe, and recorder, but this sonata is his last piece of chamber music. Less challenging than some of the other works on this list, it is a good sonata for anyone who loves Baroque music.

#8 Violin Sonata No. 1 in A Major by Gabriel Fauré

Fauré’s sparkling Violin Sonata in A Major marked a turning point in his compositional career. The first performance was very well received, and it remains his most popular chamber music work. It is elegant and refined while also being energetic and uplifting.

Unaccompanied Violin Solos

A violin solo means that the violinist is the featured performer in a piece. In accompanied violin solos, the violinist plays together with an orchestra, piano or other instrument, but has the leading role. Unaccompanied violin solos on the other hand are pieces just played by the violin and no other instruments. Most of them are technically very challenging with lots of double stops and chords to make the music sound full even if it’s only played by one violinist.

#1 Twelve Fantasias for Violin Solo by Georg Philip Telemann

Telemann was a contemporary and friend of J.S. Bach. During his life, he was the most acclaimed composer in Germany, and much more celebrated than his colleague Johann Sebastian. He was also incredibly prolific, composing over three thousand complete works (Bach only did, like, twelve hundred). His solo violin fantasias are a charming example of the improvisational baroque style.

#2 Six Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin by J.S. Bach

Okay, now to be fair, Bach also wrote an entire book for solo violin, which has become firmly rooted in the mandatory violin repertoire. His Six Sonatas and Partitas (a partita is any work that is based on baroque dance forms) were at first considered good only for technical exercises. In the late 19th century, violinists began to rediscover their musical value also, and now solo Bach movements are required at violin competitions and auditions around the world. Many of the greatest soloists play some of these movements every day to keep their creative juices flowing and to work on basics like intonation and phrasing

Below is just a single movement from Partita No. 2 in D Minor. This movement, the Chaconne, is a solid fifteen minutes long, and roundly considered one of the most astonishing violin works ever composed. Also let’s just appreciate the fact that this guy memorized it.

#3 24 Caprices for Solo Violin by Nicolo Paganini

If Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas are the most important solo violin works of the 18th century, then the Paganini caprices are the most important works of the 19th century. Paganini is a classical music legend, both because of his larger-than-life personality and his larger-than-your-finger-width technical abilities. You’ve probably heard of the last caprice, so here’s one you maybe haven’t heard:

#4 Sonatas for Solo Violin by Eugene Ysaye

Remember Belgian violinist Eugene Ysaye, a.k.a. Elvis on a violin, the guy who performed a brand-new violin sonata for his wedding? Turns out he was not only a towering performer (musically and literally) but also an incredible composer. His solo violin sonatas are dramatic, powerful, and electrifying. And if that’s not enough to get you excited, listen to a movement played by a fifteen-year-old girl.

Best modern violin solos

Reading this article, it may seem like every great violin piece was written at least 100 years ago. Actually, great new pieces are being composed every year, and only time will tell what magnificent violin works the 21st century will bring. For now though, check out just a few of the best violin solos composed within the past few decades.

#1 Theme from Schindler’s List by John Williams

This timeless movie about the man who saved over one thousand Jews from the Holocaust features Itzhak Perlman playing the main theme composed by the equally famous John Williams. It is one of the most memorable movie scores ever composed, and Oscar Schindler certainly deserves such a beautiful piece in his honor. John Williams also composed a suite for solo violin that contains two other themes from this film.

#2 Merry-go-round of Life by Joe Hiasashi

If you love anime, then you probably love the Studio Ghibli classic Howl’s Moving Castle.  Based on a British fantasy novel, the whimsical plot follows an eighteen-year-old girl, Sophie, who is cursed into an old lady by a witch. To break the curse, the plucky Sophie goes on an incredible journey with a mysterious and handsome wizard named Howl in his flying castle.

#3 Ashokan Farewell by Jay Ungar

This fiddle tune became famous as the main theme for Ken Burns’ documentary about the American Civil War. It is the only tune in that film that was not written during the 1800s. Fiddler Jay Ungar wrote it in 1982 in honor of the Ashokan Fiddle and Dance Camp he ran with his wife. The sentimental words tell about good times together and the hope of more to come.

#4 Violin Concerto in G Minor

British composer, pianist, and violinist Alma Deutscher is sixteen years old and already studying conducting at the University of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna. A prodigy in the best sense of the word, she harnessed her natural creativity from an early age to create spectacular classical compositions. Her operas, concertos, and orchestra pieces have been performed worldwide. I hope you find joy in this beautiful recording of the young composer herself performing her own violin concerto in her Carnegie Hall debut.

Bonus: Not-really-violin-solos

(and what they actually are)

It may shock you to know that some of the pieces most associated with the violin were actually written either for orchestra or for other solo instruments. Of course, they still sound beautiful on violin and make great solo pieces, but it is helpful to know the full background of why pieces were written in order to appreciate them better.

#1 Por Una Cabeza by Carlos Gardel

Written in 1935 as a vocal piece, this tango was later adapted for violin and piano, among other instrumentations. Violinist Nicola Benedetti also played an arrangement on her album The Silver Violin.

#2 Flight of the Bumblebee by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

Like Meditation de Thais, this notorious piece is also from an opera, The Tale of Tzar Saltan.  It’s from the scene where a magic swan changes the prince into an insect so he can go visit his father. It’s originally for cello, but at this point it’s been played on some pretty weird instruments so if you want to play it as a violin solo, knock yourself out.

#3 Canon in D Major by Pachelbel

I know you may not know you know this piece, but you know this piece. It is a standard at parties and weddings throughout the western world. Of course, there can be too much of a good thing and variety doesn’t hurt. This recording of what Pachelbel’s Canon may have sounded like when he wrote it will give you a fresh perspective.

#4 My Heart Will Go On by James Horner

Genius film-composer James Horner, who also wrote the scores for movies such as Field of Dreams, Braveheart, and Apollo 13, composed this piece as the tear-jerking main theme of the romantic tragedy Titanic. The original movie scoring is for flute and voice with orchestral accompaniment.

#5 The Godfather Theme by Nino Rota

The theme for this classic film is originally for string orchestra, but if you volunteer to play this as a solo for someone, you’ll be making an offer they can’t refuse.

#6 He’s a Pirate by Klaus Badelt

This swashbuckling theme makes a great solo, but is also super fun if you ever get a chance to play it in orchestra, as in the original version.

#7 Game of Thrones Theme by Ramin Djewadi

This is another famous film piece that has been adopted by violinists even though it was written for cello and string background.

#8 The Swan by Camill Saint-Saens

I know, the cellists are really stealing our thunder here. Another popular piece for weddings and other sentimental occasions, this poignant piece would sound beautiful on almost any instrument, so feel free to play it on violin. 

Hi! I'm Zlata

Classical violinist helping you overcome technical struggles and play with feeling by improving your bow technique.

What’s your favorite violin solo piece?

I hope you’ve enjoyed getting to know my top 36 violin solo pieces and you learned a new piece or got to know a new violin soloist you love.

Have you played some of these violin solos?

Let’s continue our conversation with like-minded violin players in the comments underneath and share the most beautiful violin solo pieces with each other. Will you start with your favorite violin solo?

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