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Violin Concerto

About the Work

John Williams
Quick Look Composer: John Williams
© Richard Freed
The Concerto, composed in 1974, waited for its premiere until January 29, 1981, when it was introduced by the violinist Mark Peskanov and the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, Leonard Slatkin conducting. The work, as revised by the composer in 1998, enters the repertory of the National Symphony Orchestra in the present concerts.

In addition to the solo violin, the score, inscribed “In memory of R.R.W.” (the composer's wife, the actress Barbara Ruick), calls for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, crash cymbals, suspended cymbals, chimes, large and small triangles, glockenspiel, vibraphone, xylophone, harp, and strings. Duration, 30 minutes.

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Over the last two decades John Williams has composed concertos for several instruments, commissioned by some of our leading orchestras and written for designated soloists; his Violin Concerto, however, was not composed under a commission, not with any specific soloist in mind: it came from a genuine “inner impulse,” and the romantic lyricism that characterizes it bespeaks further the personal nature of that impulse. His wife, the actress Barbara Ruick, had asked him for a violin concerto; he began composing one shortly before her death in 1974, and completed it as a memorial to her. The composer provided the following note of his own for the work's premiere in 1981.

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The twentieth century has been an extremely rich period in the production of violin concertos. It is a period in which we have been given masterpieces of the genre by Bartók, Berg, Elgar, Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Walton and others. These works have set a very high standard for any compoer wishing to contribute a piece of this kind.

However daunting these great examples of the recent past may be, the medium of the violin concerto continues to fascinate. The violin itself remains an instrument of enormous expressive power, and the urge to contribute to its repertoire is great.

With these thoughts in mind, I set to work laying out my Concerto in three movements, each with expansive themes and featuring virtuosic passage work used both for effective contrast and display. The pattern of movements is fast, slow, fast, with a cadenza at the end of the first movement. Although atonal in style and technique, I think of the piece as lying within the romantic tradition.

I wrote the Concerto in 1974, and have dedicated it to the memory of my late wife.

The first movement begins with an unaccompanied presentation, by the solo violin, of the principal theme, which is composed of broad melodic intervals and rhythmic contour, in contrast with the more jaunty second subject. Orchestra and soloist share the exploitation of this material, and after the solo cadenza the movement is brought to a quiet conclusion.

The second movement features an elegiac melodic subject. While this melody is the central feature of the movement, there is, by way of contrast, a brisk middle section based on rushing “tetrachordal” figures that are tossed back and forth between soloist and orchestra. The mood of the opening is always present, however, as the rushing and playing about continue to be accompanied by hints of a return to the movement's more introspective opening.

The finale opens with chiming chords of great dissonance from the orchestra, all of which pivot around a G being constantly sounded by the trumpet. The solo part begins immediately on a journey of passagework in triple time that forms a kind of moto perpetuo which propels the movement. In rondo-like fashion, several melodies emerge until insistent intervals, borrowed from the first movement, form to make up the final lyrical passage “sung” by the solo violin. An excited coda, based on the triple-time figures, concludes the work.

John Williams