Concerto for Violin and Orchestra ("The Red Violin")
My third film score The Red Violin gave me an opportunity to visit my own past, for my father, John Corigliano (I was a "Jr.") was a great solo violinist and the concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic for more than a quarter of a century. My childhood years were punctuated by snatches of the great concertos being practiced by my father, as well as scales and technical exercises he used to keep in shape. Every year, he played a concerto with the Philharmonic (as well as in other venues), and I vividly remember the solo preparation, violin and piano rehearsals, orchestral rehearsals, and the final tension-filled concerts (where I would sit backstage in the Carnegie Hall green room, listening to my father over a small speaker breathlessly playing the work in my head and listening to make sure everything came out all right).
It is no wonder that the concerto form, and the violin concerto in particular, has a deep place in my heart. I have written a half-dozen concerti, but this is my first one for my first love, the violin. It is an "in the great tradition" kind of concerto, because I wrote it in an attempt to write the piece my father would love to play. Because he inspired it, it is dedicated to his memory.
The event that galvanized my energies into composing this concerto was, of course, the scoring of the film The Red Violin, directed by François Girard, and featuring the sublime young virtuoso, Joshua Bell as the voice of the violin. Josh's playing resembles that of my father, he is an artist in the grand tradition. No cold, clinical dissection of a work would flow from his bow.
The story of The Red Violin is perfect for a lover of the repertoire and the instrument. It spans three centuries in the life of a magnificent but haunted violin in its travels through time and space. A story this episodic needed to be tied together with a single musical idea. For this purpose I used the Baroque device of a chaconne: a repeated pattern of chords upon which the music is built. Against the chaconne chords I juxtaposed Anna's theme, a lyrical yet intense melody representing the violin builder's doomed wife. Then, from those elements, I wove a series of virtuosic etudes for the solo violin, which followed the instrument from country to county, century to century. I composed these elements before the actual filming, because the actors needed to mime to a recording of these works since their hand motions playing the violin would have to synchronize with the music.
Then, during the summer of 1997 while the film was being shot all over the world, I remained at home and composed the 17-minute The Red Violin: Chaconne for Violin and Orchestra, a concert work based on the existing elements, and given its world premiere in San Francisco with Josh and Robert Spano in the fall of that year. After that, I had only a few weeks to provide the underscoring (the music that is not seen on camera) for the recording dates around Christmas 1997 in London. The violin and orchestra Chaconne then became a concert work, performed by Josh (and others) around the world. But, as a moderate length single-movement work, it fell into a category of works that must be paired with other works to complete a soloist's guest appearance with an orchestra. Great works like Ravel's Tzigane or the Chausson Poem, or Beethoven romances, have the same problems.
More importantly for me, the chaconne had given me the opportunity to strip away any inhibitions and write a passionate and romantic essay that I probably would not have written had it not been accompanying a film. It bypassed my "censor button" that made it necessary for me to not only write a piece, but "rediscover" the form in the piece (like my three woodwind concerti). I liked what I heard, and it came very naturally.
So, like Schumann, I decided to add some movements to the existing chaconne (he to his piano and orchestra fantasy) and make it a full-length concerto. In my case, that meant composing another three movements to balance the large first one.
The other movements are connected to the first (and the film) in different ways: the first is a fleet Pianissimo Scherzo in which the dynamics are soft, but the action wild and colorful. I wanted to break the romantic mood of the first movement with sonoric and timbral effects that create a sparkling, effervescent energy. A central trio is distantly related to Anna's theme, but here heard in knuckle-breaking double harmonics by the soloist - high, ethereal, and dance-like.
The third movement Andante flautando starts with an intense recitativo that is more closely related to the film's main theme, but soon gives way to a gentle, rocking melody played by the soloist in an unusual manner that results in his sound changing to that of a flute (flautando). He and the alto flute pair up as a complementary duo in this theme.
The final movement Accelerando Finale, as the title suggests, is a rollicking race in which the opposed forces of soloist and orchestra vie with each other. They each accelerate at different times and speeds, providing a virtuoso climate befitting a last movement. Some other unusual techniques are used here: the violin and orchestral strings are asked to press so hard on their strings that there is no pitch at all, just a crunch. This percussive and unusual sound provides energy, especially during the races. A major theme from the film that was not used in the concert chaconne was that given to Moritz, the contemporary violin expert who discovers the mystery of the Red Violin. It is a sadly romantic theme, and becomes the lyrical counterpoint to the high spirits of this final movement. Near the end of the work, the original chaconne from the first movement comes back to complete the journey of this violin concerto.
-- John Corigliano