Commissioned by the BBC

  • 3(2pic)33(2bcl)3(cbn)/4431/4perc/2hp.cel/str
  • violin
  • 22 min

Programme Note


My Violin Concerto was commissioned by the BBC and is in memory of the great British violinist Ralph Holmes (1937-84). I was delighted when the distinguished Viennese performer Ernst Kovacic agreed to play the new work and I have much enjoyed attending his concerts and discussing the Concerto with him.

The work began, although I did not realise this at the time, when Ralph Holmes and I gave a series of performances of Beethoven¹s Spring Sonata in 1981. The opening theme kept occurring to me transformed into a 1930s popular song. Many of my works have connections with popular music - there is a blues song in the Organ Concerto (1971) and a rag in the Piano Concerto (1984) - but in the Violin Concerto Beethoven’s theme appears in the guise of a waltz as well as a popular song. The waltz is associated with A major and the song with F major but, as in most of my larger works, there are plenty of other things going on at the same time, all related to the original source.

The Concerto can be heard as an allegro-adagio-scherzo-finale layout in one movement, with the faster music at the beginning and at the end, but there are further subdivisions with dramatic confrontations in between. The opening consists of trumpet fanfares that leave echoes behind them. Out of these the solo violin emerges as a lone voice but with its own resonances. These lead to a set of variations - four sections in which the piccolo has the waltz which is gradually taken over by the soloist as a popular song. Each of these sections ends with a violent eruption. The loud long chord, diminuendo, which ends the last one gives rise to the four adagio sections.

In the first adagio the soloist, very high, explores the echoes and leaves more behind. The second one is a dirge, loud over a pounding bass drum, marked lamentoso. The third is a luxuriant setting for the appearances of the popular song (first heard on another solo violin) and the soloist's ascending descant to it. This calm eventually disappears as a descending mini-cadenza for the soloist provokes new tensions in the fourth adagio where the soloist is this time loud, creating rather than responding to the echoes and resonances.

At the height of this dramatic section the soloist introduces comedy - a miniature scherzo with Beethoven¹s tune swung over a jazz bass with snorts of the brass chorale which formed the underpinning of the earlier theme and variations.

The mood of the finale emerges after a new sound - that of a set of tom-toms. It consists of continuous developments against a background of the waltz interrupted only once by a laceratingly loud tutti based on the popular song and its descant simultaneously. The jazz personality of the violin increasingly takes over the solo part, although throughout the concerto there has been no element of mere display.

The finale is obsessed with a rhythm (the swung Beethoven) and the conflict brought about by superimposing the march time (4/4) of the jazzy fragments against the continuous waltz (3/4). We have to live with this conflict because it stops only with the end of the work. Even there the piccolo and the solo violin, who have had much to do with each other already, assert C major only to be cut off with the A major of the waltz and the work as a whole. It seems thoroughly consistent that a concerto designed to be a tribute to a great artist should end with a kind of celebration.