Commissioned by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra for its 40th birthday

  • 2222/2200/timp/str
  • violin
  • 31 min

Programme Note

Written for and first performed by Isaac Stern, Davies's Violin Concerto brings together two streams in his music: symphonism and folk-fiddling. In its strongly developed substance, it asks to be measured in the company of Beethoven, Brahms and Sibelius, while there is also, particularly in the middle movement, a strong element of the Scots lament. The orchestra is generally muted in colour, though there is a dramatic role for the timpanist.

The setting of this first performance determined much about the style - it was played in the awe-inspiring twelfth-century cathedral of St. Magnus, a building steeped in centuries of Norse and Scottish history, in an island setting between the tumults of North Sea and Atlantic Ocean. The music is pervaded by sounds of sea and sea-birds. Its acoustics took into account the natural resonance of the building, and its rhythms and melodies show Scottish origins, particularly in the long, hushed violin melody of the slow movements and the reel-like feel to the close of the whole work.

There are three movements, played without a break - this is only one of many connections with the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, perhaps my favourite of all concertos, and the one that has influenced me most.

At the opening of the first movement, bassoons and horns announce the shifting melodic and harmonic material to be used throughout, establishing the home key, a modal F sharp, and ushering in the violin's long and soaring first entry. The exposition continues with darker, more brooding secondary material in the winds, and ends with the shifting material of the opening, on horns and trumpets, driving across the double bar-line to the dominant, C sharp, on low timpani (their first entry in the work) and double basses.

The development is rather a sequence of transformations of the initial material than a development in the traditional sense becoming rhythmically more defined towards the condensed recapitulation which occupies the very brief space between where the timpani stop and the cadenza starts. During this cadenza, which is of extreme virtuosity, the orchestra slowly and mysteriously establishes a complex dominant chord, completed by a timpani entry on C sharp, cadencing immediately to the tonic in a short, energetic coda. This, in turn, dissolves in a transition to the second movement.

This, an Adagio, in A, in alternating 4/4 and 7/8 time, follows without pause, and is characterized throughout by unhurried melodic unfolding, based on a Highland bagpipe tune I wrote, called 'Mor Fea'. It conjures up the near-silent expanses of still, lonely moorland, with its characteristic sea-reflected silver northern light, where cries of sea-bird, wind in heather and the distant wash and boom of the Atlantic are the only sounds. In the central development section, again underlined by timpani, it is as if the weather breaks, briefly, in a dramatic dialogue between the brass and the solo violin.

The finale opens with low pizzicato rhythms in the strings, forming a framework for the dance-like sonata-rondo that follows: again it is the timpani that herald and underline the development. A cadenza, featuring the timpanist as well as the violinist, leads to a restatement of the concerto's opening, then to an accelerando of clear Scottish dance figures, with the soloist as lead folk-fiddler: a final look back to the Adagio, a bright F sharp cadence heightened by upper-register trumpet, and the soloist leaves us with a long, isolated F sharp harmonic, fading away into silence.


Violin Concerto: I. Allegro moderato
Violin Concerto: II. Adagio
Violin Concerto: III. Allegro non troppo


Preview the score