The Kennedy Center

Einstein's Violin

About the Work

Robert Henderson Composer: Robert Henderson
© Richard Freed

Einstein's Violin, composed in 1998 under a commission from the Utah Arts Festival, was given its premiere by the Utah Symphony Orchestra under the direction of the composer on June 25 of that year. The work enters the repertory of the National Symphony Orchestra in the present concerts.

The score calls for 3 flutes, 3 oboes, 3 clarinets, 3 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, 2 tambourines (one mounted), tam tam, triangle, tubular bells, glockenspiel, wood block, xylophone, piano, harp, and strings. Duration, 12 minutes.


Robert Henderson's remarkably productive career began before he reached college age and has expanded without pause since then. He was three years old when his father gave him his first violin lessons. When he reached his teens he added piano and horn to the instruments he played, and began studying composition and theory with Donal Michalsky. By the time he entered the University of Southern California he had begun receiving prizes for his compositions; he augmented his studies at USC with private lessons in composition and conducting from Ingolf Dahl, and began his conducting career as associate conductor of the Idyllwild Music Festival Orchestra and the Young Musicians Foundation Orchestra.

When he was 15, the latter orchestra performed his Orchestral Variations under Michael Tilson Thomas, following the YMF Foundation's presentation of its Composer's Prize to him for that work. At 17 Mr. Henderson received the BMI Student Composer Award for three of his compositions, among them his Variation Movements for Solo Trumpet, which swiftly took its place in the international repertory and by now has been recorded four times.

Also while still in his teens, Mr. Henderson began performing as a horn player. He took part in some of Igor Stravinsky's last recordings of his own works and subsequently performed in more than three thousand sound tracks for movies and television. Away from Hollywood, he performed with major orchestras in England and the United States, and began to expand his activity as a conductor. In 1979 he was named associate conductor of the Utah Symphony Orhcestra, and two years later he became music director of the Arkansas Symphony. Since then he has conducted the principal orchestras of Iceland and Chile, and more than 35 orchestras in our own country.

Several of Mr. Henderson's works have been featured in international festivals and competitions, and several have been recorded. Prominent among them are his Fanfare for Eight Horns, composed for the Los Angeles Horn Club; another Fanfare, recorded by the brass section of the Los Angeles Philharmonic; a Capriccio for chamber ensemble; the full-orchestra Momentum; and Tangoed Web, for small ensemble.

Einstein's Violin, composed and introduced less than nine years ago, has since caught the attention of performers and audiences in South America and Europe. The title alludes to the renowned physicist Albert Einstein and his well known seriousness as an amateur violinist, in which role he was frequently able to take part in informal chamber music performances with some celebrated professional musicians. Mr. Henderson explains the significance of this title in a note of his own, reprinted here courtesy of the Utah Symphony Orchestra.


The title, Einstein's Violin, came to me through several abstract thoughts and reflections while I was composing the piece during the months from December 1997 to March 1998. The first idea was based on the busyness and relentless energy of the principal section of the scherzo. It reminded me of Brownian Motion, the random collision of molecules suspended in a liquid or gas, which is the subject of one of Einstein's famous papers. I was ruminating on the developmental parallel between the atomic bomb and dissonance in 20th-century (musical) harmony. The nuclear age proceeded over the first half of the 20th-century as scientists unlocked the secrets of the atom by various discoveries and technological advances, culminating in the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the use of the A-bomb. Following WW II, we entered the Cold War, which ultimately led to a series of treaties and international efforts to limit the use of atomic weapons, as we sought to a return to an earlier age of safety, realizing the potential for total destructive power was in the fingertips of a person who could "push the button."

I see a similar destructive and resoluble development in 20th-century music. The parallel is in the manipulation of dissonance. Dissonance had formerly been a device used in music to create tension followed by resolution, but many composers in the 20th century released it to form a harmonic language of its own--so much so that by mid-century they had alienated most of their audiences. In Einstein's Violin, I've attempted to connect with composers of past centuries by using devices such as sequences, modulations, and traditional forms, in combination with 20th-century harmonic language, thus hoping to diminish the destructive impact of 20th-century dissonance.

Of course the piece is not all about frenetic, destructive motion. In the second theme, pensive feelings and melancholy over life cut short contributed to the unresolved suspension at the end of this section. I was also mindful that Einstein loved classical music and enjoyed playing his violin. In this piece the strings, particularly the violins, seem to be caught up in some Brownian Motion of their own! I thought it prophetic that as I was doing the final editing, India and Pakistan became the latest countries with nuclear bomb capabilities. Given all the above, the title Einstein's Violin seemed an appropriate metaphor.

Robert Henderson