Passmore's Picks: Masters of the Modern Violin Concerto
Happy new year, friends! This month, we’ll begin covering some of my favorite concertos, starting with those for violin. In keeping with the spirit of the blog, these aren’t your super standard works by Beethoven, et al., but are nonetheless extremely worthwhile and important works for the instrument. Let’s get started!
Two of the most revered violin concertos of the 20th century were actually composed within four years of each other…and they couldn’t be more different! The concertos by Alban Berg (1935) and Samuel Barber (1939) highlight the incredible versatility of the instrument, and represent two vastly different musical languages.
Berg was at the height of his powers when the violinist Louis Krasner reached out to him with a commission. Deeply entrenched in the composition of his opera Lulu, Berg didn’t start on the concerto for several months. It was ultimately the death of Manon Gropius, the daughter of Walter and Alma Gropius (née Mahler), that pushed him to write the concerto. Subtitled, “To the memory of an angel,” the Violin Concerto was the last work Berg completed before his own tragic death later that same year (1935). Listen for the Bach chorale Es ist genug (“It is enough”) in the final movement…in Bach’s original harmonization, no less!
On the opposite end of the musical spectrum, we have the overtly Neo-Romantic Violin Concerto by Samuel Barber. Commissioned in 1939, the concerto got off to a pretty rough start before its official premiere by Albert Spaulding, the Philadelphia Orchestra and Eugene Ormandy in 1941. There are differing stories regarding the evolution of the piece before its premiere, disagreements over its structure, proportions, and playability among them…but it is now commonly regarded as the great American violin concerto. I personally believe the second, slow movement is the most beautiful music Barber ever composed.
Fast forward to 1987, the year I was born! At the time, Philip Glass was primarily known for his theatrical works—the Violin Concerto No. 1 (as he has since written another) was his first large-scale foray into purely orchestral writing. In composing it, Glass himself stated, “I wrote the piece in 1987 thinking, let me write a piece that my father would have liked [...] A very smart nice man who had no education in music whatsoever, but the kind of person who fills up concert halls. [...] It's popular, it's supposed to be — it's for my Dad.”
Esa-Pekka Salonen is one of my favorite living conductors…and he also happens to be one the greatest living composers. His Violin Concerto, written for Leila Josefowicz in 2009, is the musical summation of everything he learned over his 17 years as Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. This work received the prestigious Grawemeyer Award in 2012, which is sort of like a Nobel Prize for music—NBD.
I hope you enjoy these important pieces, and this first installment in my concerto series :)