Two twentieth century violin concertos, stylistically polar opposites, but with a common emphasis on melody. Written by two very different composers who nevertheless, each in his own time, rejected the mid-20th century ascendancy of atonality and the serial composition of music.
John Adams (b.1947) is a composer who does not like to be pinned down. Being branded a minimalist has not suited him any better than did the confines of his training in the twelve-tone system while he was a student at Harvard. Adams has said that “it’s taken me 20 years to escape the corrosive effects of graduate school.” Indeed, his style has continued to evolve since his early association with the so-called minimalists Philip Glass and Steve Reich. The term itself is a bit of a misnomer – it is difficult to point to anything minimal in Glass’ Einstein on the Beach or Reich’s Desert Music. Musicologist Richard Taruskin prefers the term “Pattern and Process” music, which highlights the tendency of these composers to set patterns in motion within dense, rhythmically complex textures, and then gradually morph these patterns over time. But perhaps what the term refers to – aside from the hallmark components of repetition and a steady, often entirely unchanging pulse – is the dearth of melody that typifies the style. Adams himself recognized the incompatibility of this particular element of his music with the genre of the violin concerto:
“I knew that if I were to compose a violin concerto I would have to solve the issue of melody. I could not possibly have produced such a thing in the 1980s because my compositional language was principally one of massed sonorities riding on great rippling waves of energy. Harmony and rhythm were the driving forces in my music of that decade; melody was almost non-existent.”
As if in reaction to having pushed melody aside for so long, the Violin Concerto, composed in 1993, is relentlessly, unforgivingly, melodic. Adams has called it “hypermelodic.” The entire piece is essentially one prolonged, continuously unfolding melody for the solo violin. Not that repetition as a device has disappeared from his music – the first movement sets the solo violin’s endless melody over persistent, steadily rising eighth-note figures in the orchestra. The second movement pays homage to a time-honoured repetitive form, one which moreover holds a cherished position in the violinist’s repertoire: the chaconne. Adams evokes a second duality here, beyond that of orchestra / solo instrument, with the association of a poem by American Robert Haas, “Body Through Which the Dream Flows.” The movement’s ethereal beauty is difficult to account for, but it is easy to imagine the solo violin’s fleeting, other-worldly imagery flowing through the sublime, yet corporeal sounds of the orchestra. The third movement is a satisfyingly virtuosic romp, with thrillingly “minimalist” writing for the orchestra, all the while maintaining unrelenting melodic invention in the solo violin part.
Erich Korngold’s Violin Concerto, premiered in 1947, might also be called “hypermelodic.” Korngold (1897-1957) himself noted that the concerto, “with its many melodic and lyric episodes was contemplated rather for a Caruso of the violin than for a Paganini.” Written at a time in music history where atonality held nearly undisputed sway in musically sophisticated circles (Korngold’s music is emphatically tonal, if harmonically complex), the work was the first in what Korngold hoped would be his triumphant return to concert music, after a long and celebrated career as Hollywood’s preeminent film composer. The piece contains material in each of its three movements from several of Korngold’s film scores, the rights to which he had shrewdly secured for himself in his contracts with the film studios.
Korngold in many ways single-handedly defined the genre of the film score, but in spite of his success he was plagued by the notion that he had sold his talents too cheaply – that a “true” composer wrote music for the concert hall and operatic stage. Korngold was well-established as an opera composer in Vienna when he came to Hollywood for the first time in 1934. He returned in 1938 to write the score for 1938’s ground-breaking Robin Hood, starring Errol Flynn. Hitler’s Anschluss in March of that year intervened, and Korngold elected to stay in California, vowing to support his family by writing music for films until Hitler was defeated. (Orchid Classics)