Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in E minor(2002-03) 40 mins
Dedicated to Helen and Arthur Jonathan on the occasion of their 50th Wedding Anniversary
Movement I: Allegro
Movement II: Andante
Movement III: Andante con moto/Doppio movimento
Total Duration: c. 40 minutes
Since the age of 18, or so, I’ve written many pieces of music as gifts for friends, even dreaming up the title Music to Measure as the banner under which they have been presented. Somehow, though, I’ve never managed to compose anything for my parents, Arthur and Helen. On December 17th, 2003 they would be celebrating 50 years of marriage – their Golden Anniversary – and this seemed to be a perfect opportunity to atone for this oversight.
Having waited so long, however, and acknowledging that such an anniversary is an incredible milestone, it seemed inconceivable that I could present a short song or chamber piece, and so, in February of 2002, I embarked upon the planning of an ambitious piece: a Violin Concerto.
Why a Violin Concerto, and why – indeed – so frankly tonal and romantic? Well, my parents have been married for 50 years
and I have been their son for 44 of those, so it’s a long story, and I will endeavour to explain it as best as I can.
As a child, I can recall the Jonathan household being alive with music of many kinds, Motown, Calypso, Jazz and Classics. My father always had a soft spot for music for Violin and Orchestra, in particular Saint Saens’ Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso. We spent many hours listening to, discussing and comparing performances of the Concerto repertoire – Mendelssohn, Bruch, Sibelius – invariably coming to the conclusion that Heifetz was incomparable.
I can half-remember a conversation, following a performance of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto when we mused on what a Rachmaninoff Violin Concerto might have sounded like, and what a pity it was that he had never composed one. I also, much more vividly, recall the day when my father expressed his disappointment that he could not write music down. His head, apparently, was full of beautiful music, and he was convinced that it was simple mechanics that prevented him from composing a Violin Concerto. So, many are the seeds that sowed this idea in my head.
As for my mother, she is a plain-speaking, (occasionally brutally) honest person. She has long acknowledged my talent – I can remember about twenty-odd years ago she went to her school fete and brought back something for me she had made at a stall: a
badge with a picture of a piano keyboard and the words Patrick – Mad Genius.
At last, I realised that there was someone who really understood me! But when she began to give me books, as presents, all about failure and rejection I began to hope that it was she, and not I, who had lost the plot. Then, a couple of years ago, she looked me in the face while we were listening to a CD of my music and said, “Patrick, I think you’re very talented, but I don’t like the music you write!” Most creative individuals would have shrugged this off by thinking, “What does she know?” But, just as I’ve tried to persuade her that modern artists paint as they do through choice and not because they can’t do it realistically, the seed was now sown to show her that I choose to compose music that sounds as mine generally does, and not because I cannot write tunefully and tonally.
The episode with my mum is the one that really directed me to the style of the piece. It had not only to be tonal, but predominantly diatonic: traditional, if you please. As I began to come up with themes (the first that I actually used in the finished piece was composed on July 16th, 2002) there was a constant frisson as I had to debate with myself whether I could actually use something so singable. Hand in hand with the composition of the piece I embarked on a detailed study of all the key works from the repertoire, to ensure that the form, style and figuration would enable my piece to sit confidently within the genre. Such study, clearly influenced the music I wrote, but I feel that I studied so diversely that the Concerto definitely sounds like it belongs to me,
and is not a pastiche.
Having decided what I was about to embark on, I needed to come up with a compositional scheme that would make the piece belong to my parents – in some sense be about them – and not simply an excuse for me to lock myself away for a year to write something for my own edification. Having decided this, I was equally convinced that I did not want the piece to be programmatic. I definitely did not want to depict scenes from the marriage of Arthur and Helen. The piece had to be essentially abstract and yet dedicated to my parents in more than just name. I decided to use musical cyphers, a technique I had used before, but one that needed to be thought about deeply if it were not to have a merely incidental effect on the finished piece.
Musical cyphers have been in currency for a long time. In The Art of Fugue J.S. Bach embedded his name by using the BACH motif: in German notation B = Bb and H = B. Liszt had written organ pieces based on these notes. Schumann and Berg had both used the technique, and – towards the end of his life – Schostakovitch had embedded his musical cypher DSCH in many works.
In practical terms I had the notes BAGA – for Helen and Arthur’s Golden Anniversary – to play with. These are the four notes that begin the piece in the woodwind, and act as an articulating motif at all structural junctures in the first movement.
By rephrasing the occasion as Arthur and Helen’s Golden Anniversary, the Golden Anniversary of Helen and Arthur, and the Golden Anniversary of Arthur and Helen I afforded myself three more motifs: ABGA, GABA and GAAB, which are exploited at
various points in the score.
These four notes provided me with a rich source of motivic material to construct themes. This, however, was not enough, as I wanted the whole structure to be an expression of the cypher. I decided to embed them as tonalities – points of modulation – within the structure. How to achieve this and make it audible was the question, and the solution grew naturally out of my desire to be diatonic and ‘traditional’. In classical sonata form, movements modulate to the Dominant (in Major key) or Relative Major (in minor key). Therefore in a work in E minor, with the second and third movements in D Major and E Major respectively, one would expect the 1st Movement 2nd Subject to be in G Major, the 2nd Movement 2nd Subject to be in A Major and the 3rd Movement 2nd Subject to be in B Major. How fortuitous that these three keys G, A and B should be present in our cypher, you might think, but I wanted the modulations to make their structural point – to draw attention to themselves – so I shuffled them.
Movement 1 modulates to A Major for its 2nd Subject, Movement 2 to B Major and Movement 3 (a rondo) to G Major and A Major/minor for its 2 episodes: Arthur and Helen’s Golden Anniversary!
While avoiding a definite programme, I have fashioned music that is broadly suggestive of my parents. One of my most abiding images of them is watching them take to the dance floor. They have an electricity and fluidity that means they dominate any ballroom or party. The music in this Concerto often aspires to the quality of the waltz, even – strangely enough – at some points in the finale that are notated in duple time!
My final comment concerns something I once read arguing that Mozart was a more successful concerto composer than Haydn because of his skills as an operatic composer. The concerto should, perhaps, have the quality of an operatic aria. I have endeavoured to include some themes suggestive of Italianate arias, and hope that my father and mother will at some stage sing along with them.