Commissioned by the 1961 Bath Festival

To Yehudi Menhuin

  • 0200/2000/str
  • violin
  • 22 min

Programme Note

The Violin Concerto – composed for Yehudi Menuhin, and first performed by him a the Bath Festival in 1961 – is for small forces (two oboes, two horns, strings) and lasts only about a quarter of an hour. Yet in its invention it is one of the most ambitious and intricate pieces Berkeley has composed. His light touch, his unemphatic, unpretentious manner, conceal a great deal of hard, bold thinking – which becomes apparent once one starts to examine the score. The Concerto is a thoroughly musical piece of music and in the delicacy and control of its writing, as in the distinctive, gentle tone of the argument, it represents Berkeley at his best.

The first movement is concerned with two "shapes” musical ideas rather than clearly defined subjects. The first of them, heard at the outset, is a rising, aspiring motif, its constituents being a rising second and a rising leap. When it passes to the basses, the violins invert it. The soloist at his entry stretches this idea to its limits; meanwhile the orchestra – first horns, then violins begin to adumbrate the second "shape”, heard distinctly from the solo violin on its second entry.

This is a slower-moving theme generally harmonised in thirds. After the soloist, the violins adopt it in an even more tranquil form, soon reach a pause, and then the development begins with a kind of fugato on the first idea. The interplay of the two ideas, and then their recapitulation, should be easy to follow.

The temp-pattern of the central movement is evident from the indications given above. Formally it is a passacaglia. The theme is a 12 note sequence:

But since this "row” is occasionally broken by repetitions of motifs within it, and since its rhythmic pattern varies from variation to variation, there is perhaps not a great deal of point in the listener hearing this Concerto for the first time trying to follow it in detail. It served (as sonata-form served in the first movement) to provide a structural basis for Berkeley’s free-ranging imagination, and when the musical sense required it, the composer broke or varied the strict "row”. After the opening lento the theme is dropped a tone on each repetition. For interest’s sake, here is the plan: (the pitch of the theme’s first note is given in bold type).

G Lento - theme on violas
- ditto with oboe adding countermotifs derived from it:
- theme on ‘cellos and basses, with countermotifs from violins; and others, welded in a long line, from the soloist

F theme on ‘cellos and basses, three crotchets to each of its notes
E Un poco piu vivo theme in long notes (of unequal length) from solo violin
D Allegro theme on horns, sustained notes and rhythmical figures
B Memo vivo theme (freely handled) on solo violin
A Tempo 1 theme of ‘cellos and basses, long notes, coming to rest on a pedal G/

The finale opens with a slow introduction for the four wind instruments; and from this there grows first the cadenza, then the main theme of the Allegro moderato. This theme is heard from the soloist, who then reshapes the accompaniment to it to form a continuation. A rearrangement of this continuation provides in time a second, cantabile theme.

Andrew Porter