• David Blake
  • Violin Concerto (1976)

  • Novello & Co Ltd (World)

Commissioned by the BBC for the 1976 Proms

  • 3(pic)23(bcl)2/4230/timp.2perc/hp.pf(cel)/str
  • violin
  • 27 min

Programme Note

The stimulus for this piece must be the tiredest cliché of all - a first visit to Italy. Although I did win a scholarship to study abroad at the appropriate time in my life, I chose to go to Berlin rather than to Rome, and my preoccupations since then have accordingly tended to be Teutonic. It may be that my relatively late discovery of Italy has caused its effect on me to be even greater - certainly one year later I can recall my experiences with ease and vividness. I suppose a hundred years ago I'd have called my piece 'Souvenirs de Florence' or 'In a Tuscan Vineyard'! Today's fashionable titles (Interfusions IV?) hardly seem appropriate to so programmatic a conception.

Understandably, composers have felt ambivalent about revealing their programmes. Mahler's fears about that of his First Symphony (The Titan) still hold good - concern that audiences will be seduced away from the musical argument by extra-musical concepts which can be grasped more immediately. Yet such is the bewilderment of most people today with new music, it would seem to be the duty of composers, if they care at all about their audiences, to help as much as possible. It's all very well to say that my music speaks for itself and must be comprehended on its own terms, but in the context of our new music, its multiplicity of styles, complexities and varying philosophical premises, perhaps such an attitude seems élitist.

My two trips to Italy were firstly to Florence, Arezzo and the hills above Lucca and secondly to Rome. I found I had an insatiable appetite for the artistic treasures of the cities and was affected most profoundly by the beauties of the countryside. My Concerto, then, is a generalised response to the campagna and the work of the artist whose greatness and power seemed to dominate me wherever I went: Michelangelo, in particular his sculpture. A light-hearted foil is provided by elements of Italian bel canto, to which I was exposed in the idyllic town of Barga, where a festival of opera was taking place.

Barga has beautiful Romanesque duomo which looks right over the town and surrounding hillsides. Late one night I stood in front of it and let the beauty and stillness of the place work on me. The first movement of the Concerto begins with an evocation of that experience. The mood is broken into by the soloist, a passionate, voluble, nervous creature who doesn't quite know where she is, until, unable to resist the prevailing atmosphere, she 'sings' with the orchestra. An abrupt change of mood and a short, perplexed recitative leads to what is, in many respects, a traditionally conceived concerto allegro, using sonata-principle thematicism as a way of approaching the tension and drama of Michelangelo's figures. Those which made the greatest impression on me were the David in the Florence academy, led to by a corridor containing the series of Captives - an incredible experience; the four figures of the Medici tombs, Night, Dawn, Day and Evening, a sequence which underlies my piece; and the early Pietà in St Peter's. Talking of one art in terms of another is invariably so misleading that to try to explain how these works gave rise to musical ideas is of dubious value. It might be helpful, however, during the heavy tuttis of the first movement, to have the David in mind. Again, halfway through the first movement, the sighing glissandi of the orchestral violins and the lyricism of the soloist may express a fraction of the beauty and poignancy of the St Peter's Madonna.

I call the first part of the second movement Scherzo because the element of humour is important. The orchestra begins seriously, the strings busy and chromatic, the brass thudding ominously. The woodwind propose a raucous alternative. The soloist now adopts unequivocally the pose of an operatic prima donna, persuading the orchestra to accompany her in a quasi cabaletta and then indulging in a cadenza, oblivious to the fact that the accompaniment has reverted to the Presto scurryings. Another recitative woos the orchestra into offering another accompaniment, which the soloist approves of delightedly, and a deeply felt aria con intimo sentimento ensues. The orchestra once again reverts to its original material, and after another cadenza the soloist conforms, forcing the orchestra, however, to become more and more scherzoso. Elements of the first movement Allegro are recalled and a climax winds down to a return of the opening nocturne. Into this is incorporated an instrumental setting of lines from one of Michelangelo's sonnets: 'O night, o sweet but sombre time'.

This is hardly a programmatic work in the Liszt, Strauss or even Mahler sense - merely one in which the musical logic and dramatic shape has been influence by extra-musical ideas (something which is more normal than composers usually lead us to believe). Although a versatile instrument, the violin is best at singing, and since I have no desire to deny it its basic character my Concerto is fundamentally a lyrical work. It was composed between November 1975 and April 1976.

© David Blake


Violin Concerto: I. Lento molto, notturnale – Allegro deciso
Violin Concerto: II. Scherzo: Presto – Notturnale


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