Commissioned by: Hessischer Rundfunk Symphonieorchester, Orchestre de Paris, San Francisco Symphony, Philharmonia Orchestra and the Southbank Centre, London.

Commissioner exclusivity applies

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  • Violin
  • 24 min
    • 4th July 2024, Tonhalle, Zurich, Switzerland
    • 5th July 2024, Tonhalle, Zurich, Switzerland
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Programme Note

‘It is an endeavor as old as civilization to set out on a road that is supposed to take you to the very end of things, if you keep going… So a pilgrim sets off. One thing is certain, one item is constant in the set of beliefs with which he travels. It is simply this, that when you reach the place called the end of the world, you fall off into the water.’  – Anne Carson, The Anthropology of Water

My Violin Concerto was partly inspired by Anne Carson’s essay ‘The Anthropology of Water’, which re-imagines the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. I now live in the Basque region of France, just beyond the Spanish border on the Atlantic coast which sits directly on the pilgrimage route. In Carson’s essay, a modern young woman walks the Camino del Santiago. Each diary entry opens with a date, a place on the pilgrimage route (many villages are near where we live) and a quote from an earlier literary pilgrim (Mitsune, Basho..).

I spent much of 2020 and 2021 at home during the pandemic, often taking long hikes through the oak forests with my four-year old son. I considered how journeys by foot create a different connection to the land and environment in which we live. Something about the practice of composing for orchestra, and writing a violin concerto, felt at times like a musical analog to this pilgrimage. Taking a journey that so many have taken before, and in which so many other musical pilgrims have left some of the most iconic and timeless music. So what does it mean for a contemporary artist to make this same journey and how these artifacts left behind by other artists inform our own course. Why are we drawn to a path so many before us have taken and often? What could I have to say that could be new or specific to my own journey? These were thoughts in my mind as I composed this concerto for my dear friend Pekka Kuusisto, also thinking of the amazing conductors and orchestras who would perform it.

I have also often taken musical inspiration from the sea, a constant source for many artists, and one which has inspired pieces of mine such as St Carolyn by the Sea and Wave Movements.

In the concerto I acknowledge the history and form of the concerto – loosely functioning in 3 movements with a cadenza between the first and second…while the second and third movements play almost like one large section and the whole piece is played attacca.

I chose to work with a smaller size orchestra – which also suits the music well I think. It embraces elements of the heroic form of the violin concerto – with moments of intense interplay between soloist and orchestra – but in other ways I subvert the traditional form, with the solo violin driving large sections of string Tutti in the fist movement and then in the second movement this unison material distils into an individualist polyphony where each instrument, including every string player in the orchestra, has their own solo. Thus inverting the traditional relationships of soloist to orchestra. The third movement reflects back on this pilgrims journey with wave like gestures in the orchestra giving way to a more driving and pulsing finale.

In Pekka Kuusisto, the violinist for whom my Concerto is written and dedicated, I have an ideal collaborator having previously composed a violin solo, Ornament and Crime (2015), for him and he has long been a champion of my music both as director and chamber musician.  He works at the highest level with a wide range of classical repertoire and is equally hungry for new works. He has a broad knowledge and appreciation of music beyond the walls of the classical genre and brings a creative whimsy to everything he touches.

– Bryce Dessner, August 2021


Bryce Dessner and Esa-Pekka Salonen discuss Dessner's Violin Concerto that was performed in December 2021 at the Philharmonie de Paris.