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Tree Song for Violin and Orchestra

About the Work

John Williams
Quick Look Composer: John Williams
© Richard Freed
This concerto-like work for violin and orchestra was composed in 2000 for Gil Shaham, who gave the premiere at Tanglewood on July 8, 2000, with the composer conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra. They then recorded both TreeSong and the Violin Concerto for Deutsche Grammophon. This work, too, is receiving its first performances by the National Symphony Orchestra in the present concerts.

The orchestra that partners the violin in this work is a bit larger than the one specified for the Violin Concerto, the additional instruments turning up among the woodwinds and percussion: 4 flutes and piccolo, 3 oboes and English horn, 3 clarinets and bass clarinet, 3 bassoons and contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, chimes, very small claves, small crotale, glockenspiel, marimba; vibraphone, xylophone, maracas, crash cymbals, sizzle cymbal, high and medium suspended cymbals, Hawaiian pulli sticks, Japanese wood block, temple blocks, mark tree, small triangle, celesta, 2 harps, and strings. Duration, 20 minutes.

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Trees have a special meaning for Mr. Williams, who finds exalted symbolism in them and is concerned for their survival. Five years before he composed TreeSong , in fact, he composed another concerted work, called The Five Sacred Trees —commissioned by the New York Philharmonic for its principal bassoonist Judith Le Clair, in honor of that orchestra's sesquicentenary—in which he alluded to Robert Graves's poetic musing on five different species. The present work had its impetus not in literature, but in the composer's direct contact with another striking variety of tree, as Mr. Williams explained in his note for the premiere in 2000.

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For quite a few years it has been my habit to walk in the Boston Public Garden as often as I can, and it has been during these walks that I found myself stopping before a particular tree and pausing to admire it.

The tree is a beautiful specimen of the Chinese dawn redwood, or metasequoia, and over time my fascination grew into a full-fledged infatuation. I later learned that the dawn redwood dates from the Mesozoic era, and until as recently as the 1940s it was thought to be extinct. Fossils of its presence in the deep past did exist, but when live specimens were discovered in China, the tree became referred to as the “living fossil.” Standing before the tree, one can sense its age and feel its wisdom.

I kept this affair of the heart very much to myself until one day when I was walking in Boston's Arnold Arboretum with Dr. Shiu-Ying Hu, the Harvard-based botanist, to whom I'd been recently introduced. During our stroll we casually paused in front of a large tree that I hadn't looked at closely enough to recognize immediately. Pointing to the tree, Dr. Hu explained that this tree was the oldest metasequoia in North Ameri a and that she had planted it in the late 1940s using seeds she had brought with her from China. I was thunderstruck by this coincidence, and when I told her of “my” metasequoia in the Public Garden she informed me that the younger tree I loved so much was also one of her children.

Recently, when I was given the opportunity to write a piece for Gil Shaham, I thought of Dr. Hu and her tree. The result is TreeSong for violin and orchestra. The piece doesn't aspire to “describe” the tree per se, but it does attempt, in my mind at least, to connect, to the degree possible, the great beauty and dignity of this magnificent conifer with the elegance and grace of Gil Shaham and his art.

John Williams

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Delicacy and serenity are conspicuous qualities of this work, which combines characteristics of the concerto (in this case reversing the usual format of two fast outer movements framing a slow one, in favor of a slow-fast-slow sequence) and the tone poem. The latter impression is perhaps heightened by having the three movements played without pause. The cadenza, which occurs in a position both upholding tradition and breaking with it—which is to say, it does come at the climax of the works fast movement, but in this case it is the middle movement rather than the opening one—tends to focus on lyricism rather than pyrotechnic display.