Though I accepted avidly the BBC Philharmonic’s invitation to write a violin concerto for Ernst Kovacic back in 1987 the work had a tortuous gestation and was only completed in 1990. This is due both to its intrinsic complexity and the way it draws upon very diverse sources of inspiration, some of them going back to the early years of my composing life.
Its immediate background is the poetry of John Ashbery, the work’s dedicatee. I found his poems unsettable as songs, but analogous with musical ebb and flow, and immensely suggestive of musical moods. An abiding memory of a visit to the poet’s mansion in up-state New York is its ravishing Tiffany-style windows - the sumptuousness of the coloured and the dimantine brilliance of the patterned clear glass. This image fused with an old desire to set to music the cycle of poems written by Rilke in French entitled Les fenêtres, which I’d toyed with on and off since about 1975 and eventually abandoned. These lovely little lyrics, apparently begging to be set to music, somehow defied it. After discovering Ashbery’s verse (and then seeing his windows) it dawned on me that the concerto could "set" the Rilke to music – songs without words, sung instead by the solo violin – and preserve their French- orientated ambience of sweetness, tenderness, luminosity, and domestic or erotic intimacy. And here the oldest source of all, to attempt some day my own paraphrase upon a favourite song of Fauré, seemed at last, after some thirty years, to find its right opportunity. In a concerto built around a song-cycle without words of French love-poems, here would be the heart.
This was compatible with another wish, that after writing several concerti in distinct movements (albeit unified by cross-references and sometimes playing continuously) I wanted to avoid overt dependence upon traditional concerto types, with a different form, presentation of material, and relationship between soloist and orchestra. Also the others had all begun from the solo instrument, as central focus and carrier of continuity. Here, apart from the Rilke-lyrics, the solo part remained unclear until the final stages of composition – not the least of the work’s many problems! There are still vestiges both of a 3-movement concerto and a 5-movement arch-shape (slow, fast, slow, fast, slow) in the structure; but the boundaries are mostly ambiguous, and across the whole are placed, irregularly, nine windows, opening glimpses from within the form to something outside it, or from outside to the secret perfume and light within.
Now follows a simplified guide which I hope will help what is essentially a matter of intricate detail to be followed without trouble. But if in trouble, please don’t worry at it; just listen!
Opening – a long violin line emerges out of a hazy background (which contains implicitly the main material):
Window I, leading directly to Window II: followed by a brief return to the opening, and a foretaste of the work’s main climax: Window III.
Scherzo I (marked unheimlich – "uncanny") – an agitated, nervous movement, its melody starting off from a setting of Christina Rossetti (made in 1973) about the moaning autumn wind. Its course is broken into by the next sequence of windows. Window IV is splintered into three fragments. The scherzo continues, and includes a miniature trio. Window V, which breaks into the return of the scherzo, is also fragmented into three; after the third comes only a final snatch of scherzo before Window VI, which begins to tend towards the more reflective music at the work’s heart, introduced by a gentle orchestral linking-passage.
Andante/adagio; a paraphrase for Fauré’s song le parfum impérissable, (headed by a couplet from its text by Leconte de Lisle:
Il gard en se brisant son arôme divin
Et sa poussière heureuse en reste parfumé…).
The song’s three strophes are presented in an ever-warmer orchestra paraphrase, separated by passages for the soloist, who fervently joins the orchestra for the climactic last strophe (delayed half-way through by an interpolation that will recur later in the cadenza) and its tranquil close.
Now things start to be more complex. The soloist’s ardent reaction at the song’s end acts as upbeat to an orchestral allegro appassionato, cut off before it can arrive by a new singing paragraph, again for orchestra alone, which winds down into Scherzo II. Where the first scherzo had been melancholy, this second is sharp and pungent, with a nip of Eastern Europe in the air. Its first section (accompanied by the five brass instruments) leads to Window VII, whose amorous lyricism makes a complete contrast. The scherzo’s second section (accompanied by the woodwinds and tuned percussion) builds up to a return of the allegro appassionato, for a second time not allowed to reach its goal. Then comes the scherzo’s third (section accompanied by string), broken into by three increasingly brilliant eruptions of Window VIII, the last opening up another long lyrical line for orchestra alone. It sets off the allegro appassionato for a second time not allowed to reach its goal. Then comes the scherzo’s third section (accompanied by strings), broken into by three increasingly brilliant eruptions of Window VIII, the last opening up another long lyrical line for orchestra alone. It sets off the allegro appassionato for a third time, which at last is given its head for the work’s principal climax.
As this winds down the solo violin re-enters after its long rest with an intensification of material from the sixth window to make the night and last. This Window IX begins to expand and glow; when it seems that it can fill no more space the soloist emerges from it in a Cadenza on previous motifs’ including a reminiscence of the passage interpolated into the third strophe of le parfum impérissable, and the opening and close of the song itself. As the soloist ceases, the orchestra re-enters with the Coda. This begins as a solemn recall of the end of Window IX; at its cadence (the cadence of the whole work, held in suspense until almost the last moment) the soloist joins for a sudden return to the melody of Scherzo I. Not its texture however; the former crepitation here coalesces into ton e dense chord which gradually disappears from the depths upwards, leaving the violin solo alone (except for the triangle) on the same high note, coming out of nothing, with which the concerto began.
This most lyrical of Violin Concertos is one of Holloway’s most important works. It was commissioned by the BBC for the violinist, Ernst Kovacic, with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra. It was always intended to be premiered in the smallish Concert Hall of the Royal Northern College of Music, hence the small string section, and the then Controller of Radio 3, John Drummond, was very upset when the composer declined to allow the first performance to be at a Promenade Concert. In retrospect, though, he feels that the work would probably not have suffered in the more spacious acoustic of the Royal Albert Hall. Like so many of Holloway’s works, it takes its inspiration from external sources: from the Tiffany windows of the American poet, John Ashbery’s house in New York State, from the series of poems, Les Fenêtres, by Rainer Maria Rilke and, at the concerto’s centre, a favourite song by Fauré, Le parfum imperissable. Although the Concerto is in one continuous movement, an arch-shape is discernible with a Cadenza, in which many of the earlier themes are recalled, coming before the Coda. At the end, the music dies away to nothing, just as the opening had emerged from nothing. This is one of Holloway’s finest and most lyrical pieces and well deserves to be taken up by our more enterprising British violinists.
Repertoire Note by Peter Marchbank