The Red Violin: Chaconne for Violin and Orchestra

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        Films have been accompanied by music almost since their inception, whether adapted from pre-existing compositions, or newly composed.  And from the beginning, for many there has been a somewhat subconscious tendency not quite to accord the genre of original music for the cinema the same artistic respect as that composed for the concert stage.  Only a few moments reflection, however, reminds us of how many of the world’s most respected so-called “classical” composers of the twentieth century have deigned to write for the movies.  It’s almost easier to name those who haven’t than those who have.  Nevertheless, even a partial list is impressive, indeed: Milhaud, Ibert, Shostakovitch, Prokofiev, Copland, Bernstein (Leonard, not Elmer), Philip Glass, Vaughan Williams, Walton--well, you get the idea.  A second tier of composers is that of classical musicians of Europe, steeped in the music of Wagner, Strauss, and French impressionism, who emigrated to the United States, and whose music informed the films of Hollywood during the thirties, forties, and fifties: Max Steiner, Erich Korngold, Franz Waxman, Miklós Rósza, and Dimitri Tiomkin.

        To my mind, it is interesting that there has always seemed to be a double standard imposed upon music of the twentieth century by the public.   It is ironic, indeed, that music composed in some of the most “cutting edge” or avant-garde styles in support of film moods and images is often enthusiastically accepted by the same audiences that would bitterly complain when heard across town on the local concert stage.  Ligeti’s Atmosphères (used in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey) comes to mind.  But, I digress.

        John Corigliano is certainly one of the new generation of composers that are equally at home in the theater and the concert stage.   He is a native New Yorker, educated there at Columbia, and worked for WQXR, Columbia Masterworks, and with Leonard Bernstein on the Young People’s Concert series.  He has taught at the Manhattan School, CUNY, and Juilliard.  His compositional style has varied widely during his career, ranging from a conservative, accessible, tonal idiom to aleatoric, experimental, and serial techniques.  He was the recipient of a commission from the Metropolitan Opera that resulted in The Ghosts of Versailles (1991), an opera that makes much use of eighteenth-century musical styles.  He is obviously at home with a variety of musical idioms--you may remember his scores for the films, Altered States (1981) and Revolution (1985).

        His score for the acclaimed 1997 film, The Red Violin, is the basis for the various versions of his concert piece for violin and orchestra.   The story of the film is that of a fictional violin, and the various episodes of its precarious life through three centuries and five countries.  Each of the scenarios required somewhat different musical styles that nevertheless wove together the continuity of the sensational sound of the instrument as it passed from hand to hand of its owners. The solo violin played in the film soundtrack was Joshua Bell’s Tom Taylor Stradivarius--most have nicknames.   A chaconne is a baroque genre--from the time of Stradivari’s life--and is a series of melodic variations (based upon a repeated series of seven chords in this case).   The composer’s father was the distinguished concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic during Bernstein’s tenure, and according to Corigliano, the memory of his vivid presence in the home as a violin virtuoso served as the inspiration for much of this piece.   It unfolds as a series of virtuoso etudes for violin, and has been characterized as both “lyrical and savage”, and is a remarkable concert piece for the instrument.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan