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Composed: 1937-1939, revised 1945
Length: 25 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes (2nd = piccolo), 2 oboes (2nd = English horn), 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons (2nd = contrabassoon), 4 horns, 2 trumpets, trombone, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, gong, vibraphone, xylophone, bells, chimes), harp, celesta, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: January 8, 1953, Alfred Wallenstein conducting, with soloist Jascha Heifetz
Like Mendelssohn's ever-popular Violin Concerto, Korngold's Violin Concerto is the late work of a prodigy that defies any suggestion that its composer lost his flair once his brilliant childhood was past. Part of the very rich Viennese tradition in which Korngold was brought up took it for granted that great artists were endowed with a complete command of their technical resources; another part assumed that great art was richly expressive. So in the wake of Wagner and in the shadow of Strauss and Mahler, the young Korngold displayed prodigious gifts of musical invention, a masterly handling of voices and instruments, and an unquestioning devotion to full-blooded romantic expression.
Perfect for Hollywood, we may say with hindsight, although we should remember that the extraordinary sophistication and romantic energy that characterizes film scores of the '30s and '40s were largely the creation of Korngold and other refugees from European opera houses. His 23 film scores, mostly for Warner Bros., were not a betrayal of his Viennese upbringing, as many waspish critics suggested, but an extension of the very aesthetic he had always lived by.
Conversely, his studio work enriched his symphonic output. No work illustrates this more clearly than the Violin Concerto, all three of whose movements draw on themes from films produced between 1937 and 1939. Or did the film scores draw on themes from the Concerto? The origins of the Concerto are not clear, although the great violinist Huberman had suggested such a thing for years. By 1945, when Korngold decided to give the work its final form, Huberman's best years were over, and so it was Heifetz who was entrusted with the first performance. This took place in St. Louis on February 15, 1947, with performances shortly after in Chicago and New York. In 1953 Heifetz made a magnificent recording with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, still unsurpassed despite the many fine recordings that have emerged in recent years.
Korngold accepted the favorite key of all violin concertos (D major) and the favorite three-movement scheme. In classic style, the first movement is lyrical and energetic in turn, the second is a sublimely beautiful Romance in the key of G, and the finale is rousing and spirited with more than a hint of a folk dance. The soloist is called on to display an extreme virtuosity throughout, with much of the solo line set in the highest range, where the violin, alone of all instruments, can sing with its pure, angelic voice. The orchestra rarely occupies the foreground, but the richness of its accompanying colors, especially from the vibraphone, xylophone, harp, and celesta, gives magical support.
- Hugh Macdonald is general editor of The New Berlioz Edition and a professor of music at Washington University in St. Louis.