My Violin Concerto was commissioned by the Hallé Concerts Society and was given its first performance by Lyn Fletcher with the Hallé Orchestra, conducted by Kent Nagano, in The Bridgewater Hall, Manchester on 3 February 2000.
As I completed most of the Violin Concerto during the last few months of the last century, I found it impossible to resist the temptation to look back and give some respectful nods in certain musical directions – not that the music itself uses direct quotation, more perhaps that it has an illusory veneer of such without, I hope, any self-consciousness. However, the single most important element behind the concerto is a non-musical one – namely, that of poetry. Thus, each movement is prefaced by a quotation from different poetic sources which give the starting point for the character of the music – indeed, often much more.
Whilst working on the concerto I was also completing a large-scale work for choir and orchestra entitled The Dance, forever the Dance. The third movement of this work set a poem by Oscar Wilde called The Harlot’s House and one stanza from this poem is quoted at the very opening of the concerto:
But she – she heard the violin,
And left my side, and entered in;
Love passed into the house of lust.
The poem itself is tinged with sensuality and imagery of death. Two lovers wander down a moonlit street (Vienna or Paris, perhaps?), the woman becoming captivated by the sound of a distant violin playing a waltz by Johann Strauss. She leaves her lover and joins what turns out to be an orgiastic dance of death. I have used the idea of the violin as an instrument of seduction and the music of the first movement mirrors this. The concerto opens with a slow lyrical section, the violin announcing the main motive of the concerto (a four-note descending phrase). The main fast section follows where two ideas are contrasted and developed. When the first idea returns, it is transformed into a scherzo which itself is transformed into a parody of an orgiastic waltz. At this point, the violin continues with a cadenza, soon to be joined by the dramatic entrance of the timpani. The transformed four-note motif (pizzicato) leads straight into the slow movement:
|Les sanglots longs||The drawn-out sobs|
|Des violons||of the violins|
|De l’automne||of autumn|
|Blessent mon coeur D’une langueur Monotone||wound my heart with a monotonous langour|
This quotation from a poem by Paul Verlaine provides suitable contrast to the first movement with its autumnal orchestral colours (the opening being scored for strings, harp and tam-tam). The movement uses a process of continuing variation and develops further the material from the first movement. A central climax forms a powerful arch to the structure (it is the most powerful climax of the whole concerto), after which the music subsides into a transformed recapitulation of the very opening of the work. This moment of tranquility and tonal stability provides the emotional heart of the concerto. It leads directly into the final movement:
And the merry love the fiddle,
And the merry love to dance;
(W B Yeats)
The imagery of the violin in Irish folk-lore is legendary and, again, I have used this as the starting point for this movement, where the violin returns to its universal folk roots. Again, material from the first movement is further developed and transformed. The first idea introduced by the solo violin is, indeed, dance-like, though the music is chromatic and unsettled. The violin attempts to introduce a lyrical idea (singing sweetly) but this is swept aside by the rough intrusion of brass and percussion. The opening idea returns, but again another episode, mainly for the orchestra, interrupts. However, the violin triumphs and this time transforms the opening rondo idea into a modal/tonal resolution reminiscent of Irish folk music (Irish drum and all!).
It is a notable addition to the English violin concerto repertory, in company with those by, say: Moeran, Bliss and Bax.
Michael Kennedy, The Sunday Telegraph
The opening rides on a magic carpet of neo-Romantic harmony, and the occasional reminiscences of Prokofiev, Walton and Tippett feel like genuine affinities rather than opportunistic sallies. The slow movement has a quietly ecstatic core, and … the scoring is masterly.
The violin concerto demonstrates how responsive Gregson can be to text. The first movement takes its cue from an Oscar Wilde poem in which love wars with lust. Gregson responds with a sensuous battle between the astringency of Berg and the gentle lyricism of Vaughan Williams. He is such an Englishman at heart that Vaughan Williams wins.
Alfred Hickling, The Guardian
The elysian, mystical slow movement rapturously played by Olivier Charlier, takes the listener far deeper than the quoted lines of Paul Verlaine’s ‘Chanson d’automne’ …
Ivan March, Gramophone
It is a grand, new Romantic work with echoes of many other 20th Century composers and styles. This seems appropriate for a work which was written in the dying months of 1999 but the ‘fin de siècle’ feeling the piece captures seems as full of excitement about the future as wistful for the vanishing century. There were hints at the wide open spaces of Copland and the bitter-sweet sounds of the Berg Violin Concerto in the substantial opening movement … whilst the powerful, heavy tutti strings in the slow central movement were reminiscent of Shostakovich and the openings of his Fifth and Eighth Symphonies … Edward Gregson’s own voice was always pre-dominant, however, and the use of a large orchestra … was frequently sparing and Mahlerian in its chamber-like consistency … Suffice it to say that Edward Gregson’s Violin Concerto is a glorious addition to the repertoire and I hope other violinists will take the work up: they will find it very rewarding, as will audiences.
Paul Conway, British Music Society Journal (March 2000)
The violin soon arises from the romantic atmospheric opening, which is quickly left behind in the violin’s relentless figuration. Gregson’s high lying lyrical line has momentary reminiscences of earlier twentieth century concertos, by Walton, Samuel Barber and Prokofiev’s Second … At one point the muscular string music from Blazon appears, but although Paul Hindmarsh’s notes tell us we have finally achieved general rejoicing, this is still very much music of today evoking the world as it is, there is to be no serenity.
Lewis Foreman, MusicWeb International