Glass Violin Concerto no. 1

performed by Gidon Kremer and the Vienna Philharmonic under Christoph von Dohnanyi, or below by Karen Gomyo and the Hague Residentie Orchestra under Brad Lubman

“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.”

Philip Glass [1]

“a work typical of Glass, in which a certain enigmatic drive allows the performer to feel both bound to strict rhythm and free in his fantasy.”

Gidon Kremer [8]

Unfortunately, it seems that the dedicatee of the piece, Paul Zukofsky, a gentleman I’ve had chances to speak with (also unfortunately not really about this work), never recorded this work, but did premiere it. Zukofsky and Glass worked together on the work, which according to some, marked a turn to concert hall orchestral music, which was at least to some degree encouraged by Dennis Russel Davies. Wikipedia says:

A series of orchestral works that were originally composed for the concert hall commenced with the 3-movement Violin Concerto No. 1 (1987). This work was commissioned by the American Composers Orchestra and written for and in close collaboration with the violinist Paul Zukofsky and the conductor Dennis Russel Davies, who since then has encouraged the composer to write numerous orchestral pieces.

Apparently Davies told Glass “I’m not going to let you . . . be one of those opera composers who never write a symphony”.[51]  In any case, this is one of those milestone moments we talked about last week, a turn for Glass to more ‘traditional’ forms: the concerto, symphonies, and more, things that would put him not in experimental theatres or opera houses or recital spaces, but fill concert halls, which might sound like a pretty normal thing to people who listen to music and think of classical composers, but to all that I can tell, it was kind of a new arena for the composer, who was most known for very  nontraditional works. But here he is with a violin concerto.

The piece is in three movements, marked thusly:

  • I. quarter note = 104 — quarter note = 120
  • II. quarter note = ca. 108[6] or ca. 96[7]
  • III. quarter note = ca. 150 — Coda: Poco meno quarter note = 104

That’s kind of cool, I think, that they’re just… metronome markers. It gives the information needed for the performance but without any programmatic or other kind of information that may perhaps give an undue expectation or impression. Let’s go.

The piece begins in a manner not unlike the other works we discussed this past weekend, both the string quartets and the pieces referenced in those articles, but instead of a quartet of strings or electronic keyboards or whatever, we have an orchestra entering with the initial pulse of the piece, quickly deepened with low strings and brass. It’s an initial, overall pulse, and the soloist quickly enters with what sounds like a compressed, concentrated version of that pulse. It’s like a spider building a silk web, except very fast. Things are being woven together here, with beats of three or four, and flute enters, always an instrument to make a passage sound ‘swirling’. Things at play in this first movement include the shifting meters and slightly changing heartbeat-like pulse that opens the piece, as well as that growth not just in volume, but of complexity, of range, as the piece seems to reach higher planes of expression, occasionally moving down to a lower-energy state. There are lots of arpeggios from the soloist, but this is contrasted with long, high singing notes. Wikipedia mentions “an intense churning pattern”, this original energetic swirling gains momentum and speeds up and slows down, but not at once, like a body of water slowly builds or ebbs.

This is symphonic music, for sure. It seems ‘minimalist’ but there are musical elements at play that are just as significant as in any other concerto, and while this first movement is quite straightforward, and brief (at less than seven minutes), it is more than a bunch of repetitions of the same cluster of notes, clearly a concerto from Glass’s pen, but putting to effective use the palette of the orchestra plus soloist.

The second movement I would almost call a passacaglia, except it isn’t. The only reason I say so is because of the repeated bass figure, made of low brass and strings, a warm, round ball of sound at the bottom of the spectrum, that form the basis for this movement. Above it shift arpeggios or broken chords in a manner you’d expect from Glass. After a few repetitions of the bass, the soloist enters with one of two ideas: long repeated notes that soar over the figures below, or arpeggiated figures of its own. While it’s a warm, engaging movement, it strikes an interesting balance in the traditional dialogue of the concerto. In some cases, the soloist (piano, violin, cello, whatever) is working in complete accord with the orchestra, using them as support (Chopin), while in others, they clash and hash it out, working against each other for dominance, but most concertos have a bit of both. In this case, the soloist and orchestra kind of dance around one another, alternating roles. One is static while the other is dynamic, and then they switch. The real progress of the movement, perhaps, is harmonic, building up to a (very) central point and then regressing back down, but without ending on the tonic. Like the string quartets from this past weekend, they end like someone pulling a plug, turning off a faucet, and the impression is that the soloist is left behind, his accompaniment having left the dance floor for a drink, or just up and left the party altogether, no closure.

But it comes, maybe, in the third movement. Remember that this piece was kind of a collective commission, and Robert Maycock says that Zukofsky “wanted a high, slow finale.” But that’s not what we seem to get at the beginning. Instead, it’s maybe the most vibrant passage of the whole work, with strong bass and unpitched, clickly percussion giving us a spirited, energetic heartbeat upon which the soloist enters with the most virtuosic-sounding passage of the whole work. It’s dizzyingly fast, conjuring images of whirling colors, life speeding by at a near-uncontrollable speed, but just before the wheels come off, the orchestra pins things down with a stronger, very-together rhythm that sounds to quash the violin’s vibrance. This is by far the most exciting portion of the concerto, with the kind of spirited dialogue I was talking about above. It feels like it’s going somewhere, that now we’re rushing toward some point on the horizon, but never actually get there.

Suddenly, though, we get our slow finish, the one Zukofsky wanted. On the one hand, this could seem kind of incongruous, with the composer feeling that the work had found its own voice and inspiration, and tacking on an obligatory slow end to the work, like snuffing out the fire that’d taken so long to get going, but to my ear, it sounds perfectly nostalgic. In the title of the finale, you see the coda marked as 104 instead of 150, so it’s technically the end, but it took some time to get there. To me, it’s like looking back, pausing to ponder on the journey.

Things can happen fast, and it’s easy to get all worked up and absorbed in what is going on right this moment, but the big picture is made up of lots and lots of these little moments, and that almost sudden abrupt moment about a third of the way through the finale, when everything cools off and slows down, feels like retrospect.

Something that I think makes this work (and perhaps much of his music) so vivid is that it’s easy to grab onto. Having discussed the elements in this concerto, it shows that there are musical ideas present that, even if you as a listener can’t pinpoint or express in musical terms, are still easy to appreciate: an arpeggio figure increases in intensity, changes shape after a dozen repeats; a sudden shift in meter or harmony, contrast between static and dynamic elements. These are all very simple ideas, and while more commonly-discussed things like ‘beautiful melody’ are still there, I’d argue that Glass hangs the piece on the nail of some of these more fundamental concepts. This is much like the character of Einstein  or 12 Parts, where there is no change for some seemingly-long period of time before suddenly the slightest change feels earth-shattering. That approach takes time to build, but it’s been compressed here, instead of long static passages, what gives the piece life is contrast and movement. It might not be one of the greatest concertos in the violin literature, but it’ll take most people’s breath away faster and with greater ease than say, Berg or Schoenberg. At least the first few listens, anyway.

It’s a tender, delicate, and less sudden end to a rich but focused little journey.

We have one more violin piece this month in our little series on the violin and its presence in various forms, so stay tuned for that this week before we move on to something very different.

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