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Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 15

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Benjamin Britten
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Christoph Eschenbach, conductor / Midori, violin, plays Britten Dec. 1 - 3, 2011
© Thomas May

"Uncertain and afraid/As the clever hopes expire/Of a low dishonest decade": thus wrote W.H. Auden near the beginning of "September 1, 1939," his epochal poem which suddenly acquired tragically unexpected relevance just over ten years ago, in the wake of the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Disgusted by Europe's impending collapse into yet another war, Auden had resettled in America, where he wrote the poem upon Hitler's invasion of Poland. The poet's emigration at the beginning of that year inspired Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) to follow suit in the spring of 1939. Traveling with tenor Peter Pears, who would soon become the composer's lover and remain his partner for life, Britten crossed the Atlantic with two large-scale projects still in progress: Les Illuminations, a song cycle based on Rimbaud's poetry, and the Violin Concerto.

Six years younger than Auden, with whom he had been collaborating in theater, film, and song cycle projects since the mid-1930s, the pacifist Britten was at the time still strongly under the poet's spell and shared his distress over the growing menace of fascism. Initially he was unclear about how long he intended to stay. The North American sojourn (which began with a series of stops in Canada) turned out to be remarkably productive: it was in the New World that Britten made his first foray into opera-Paul Bunyan, another project with Auden-and conceived his breakthrough in that genre, Peter Grimes. And here, among other pieces, he completed the Violin Concerto during that final summer of tense peace in 1939-a period which he and Pears spent visiting with new friends, such as Aaron Copland. As soon as the war erupted, Copland encouraged Britten to stay. "After all anyone can shoot a gun," Copland argued, "but how many people can write music like you?" Yet unlike Auden, Britten was unable to overcome his homesickness and did decide to return to his native England during the war. He set sail again in 1942, homeward bound with Pears.

Beyond the ugly political events that were unfolding, Britten of course had additional aesthetic and personal reasons for desiring a change of scene from Europe-at least for the time being. He had enjoyed an exceedingly happy childhood, during which his astounding gifts as a musical prodigy were nurtured. By his mid-20s Britten was already a celebrated composer, producing a flood of new compositions that included a great deal of incidental music (scores for the stage and radio as well as film music), chamber pieces, song cycles, and his first ambitious works for full orchestra. Yet he grew increasingly frustrated by the supercilious, at times barbed, critical reaction he sometimes faced back on his home turf-particularly in response to his Piano Concerto of 1938-which, for Britten, only seemed to underscore an insular nationalism.

In contrast-and somewhat ironically, given the manner in which his style later became pigeonholed as "conservative"-Britten opened himself early on to key modernist influences from the Continent. He developed an obsession with Mahler far ahead of his time and was keenly attuned to the innovations of Stravinsky and Schoenberg. In 1936, just a few months after Shostakovich's bold opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District was banned by Stalin (and nearly sent its composer to the gulag), Britten caught a concert performance in London and began to wonder whether he should add Shostakovich to his growing pantheon. Both composers shared a deep-rooted love of Mahler and would come to leave their mark on each other's music. And in April 1936, Britten was invited to bring his Op. 6 Suite for violin and piano to the International Society for Contemporary Music Festival, being held that year in Barcelona. While there, he heard the world premiere of the elegiac Violin Concerto by the recently deceased Alban Berg-a work he found "just shattering" and eagerly sought out again when it was premiered a short while later in London.

Soon thereafter, the Spanish Civil War broke out. It became recognized as an initial staging ground for the conflict with Hitler and Mussolini that seemed ever more inevitable. Britten composed several pieces of a more overtly "agit-prop" nature, including Pacifist March and Ballad of Heroes (another Auden collaboration). But the darkly mournful qualities that imbue a work as abstract as the Violin Concerto likewise seem to reflect his response to current events: grieving not only for the defeat of the Republican cause by the Fascists-an outcome which happened while Britten was immersed in the score-but for the larger specter of impending tragedy to which, he sensed, this was but a prelude. Britten even seemed to apologize to his publisher for the music's demeanor, writing that it "is without question my best piece. It is rather serious, I'm afraid." To Wulff Scherchen, son of the famous conductor and likely the composer's first lover, Britten hinted at the depth of feeling he had invested in a letter announcing the Concerto's recent completion. "It is at times like these," he wrote just a few weeks after the outbreak of the Second World War, "that work is so important-that humans can think of other things than blowing each other up!"

Not that the Violin Concerto is programmatic in a Straussian way-or even in the sense of Shostakovich's musically coded metaphors, although readings along the lines of the latter have been proposed. Certainly the work exerts a purely and intrinsically musical fascination in its innovative approach to concerto form, in the role it devises for the soloist, and in the precocious working out of trademarks of Britten's style: especially the economy of material subjected to highly imaginative variation and the scintillating and dramatic use of orchestral color. Britten wrote the Concerto for Spanish expatriate violinist Antonio Brosa-an old friend of his early composition mentor, Frank Bridge, who had joined him for the Barcelona performance of his Suite-and returned to the score several times in later decades to revise the solo part.

The relative tempos of the three-movement format mirror the unconventional model of Prokofiev's First Violin Concerto (a work Britten had heard in London, though he professed disdain for it),  in which the middle is fast rather than slow. Framing it are movements of gravitas, the final one being the longest as well as the gravitational center of the entire work. Britten kept mum about external musical influences, but Brosa referred to specifically Spanish rhythmic ideas he latched onto during their trip to Barcelona.

The first, heard in the opening measures, serves as a kind of motto: an enigmatic motif of five notes on the timpani. The gesture alludes to the famous opening of Beethoven's Violin Concerto, though with the added splash of cymbals. Britten translates this to the rest of the orchestra in unexpected ways throughout the opening movement. Over this insistent rhythm, the soloist takes flight in a long melody, doleful and richly ambiguous. Both ideas unfold in tandem for some time before a more agitated section introduces another prominent rhythmic motif and a new melody on the violin (including a variant of the opening motif's rhythm). A rather short development dovetails back to the opening music, with Mahlerian painting from the harp, but now the division of labor is redistributed, with the solo violin bowing and plucking the motto. The coda is heartrending in its eloquence, subsiding into a sorrowful cadenza-like passage for the soloist against those insistent rhythms-and then the merest promise of resolution, more of resignation than peace.

But the restless figuration and accents of the scherzo-like Vivace intrude with a frenetic theme of ascending and descending scalar motion. It prefigures the theme of the finale, which is directly attached. A contrasting trio flirts with a new, exotic melody (possible shades of Andalusia), though menace enters in from various corners, and the frenzy returns. An outstanding example of Britten's orchestral imagination here is the bizarre passage for tuba in dialogue with a pair of chattering piccolos. Britten then steers the music into an elaborately reflective violin cadenza drawing on ideas from the first movement.

This lifts the curtain on the final movement, which centers on the theme somberly pronounced by the trombones-the first time Britten uses them in the Concerto. The form of this finale is usually described as a passacaglia, though Britten treats it much less strictly than his baroque models: he allows for repetitions, tonal shifts, and staggered statements of the basic theme within his sequence of nine variations. Its scalar shape-ascending and then descending-has an ominously unsettled quality which is exploited by Britten's various elaborations, some for orchestra alone (including a poignant variation calling for solo oboe). The final variation includes some of the Concerto's most searingly expressive passages for the violin and develops into extended coda, set as a dirge-like march. The soloist attempts to negotiate a serene resolution for all that has come before: but these impassioned pleadings still lead only to ambiguity. We are left with an "in-between" harmonic gesture-the violin's trill on F/F-sharp against the orchestra's indeterminate chord-that leaves the question of major or minor undecided.