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Michael Nyman

Publisher: Chester Music

Violin Concerto (2003)
Chester Music Ltd
Soloists and Orchestra
Year Composed
25 Minutes
Solo Instrument(s)
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Programme Note
Michael Nyman Violin Concerto (2003)

A possible title, or subtitle, for this Concerto would be, or could have been, 'Contact Sheet' ('Kontaktabzug'), since the image and structural principle of the sheet of (unprocessed, straight off the printer) frames on a photographic contact sheet was one of the starting points for the composition of this work. The limits of the frame are important - since the Violin Concerto is literally (but with one category of exceptions) a sequence of 'framed' sections, each precisely calculated to last one minute only. By eliminating the danger of the discursive, this tight formality allows me, on the one hand, to create and articulate a series of self-contained, generally unrelated, musical 'images', and on the other hand to observe the different ways of experiencing the same 'quantity' of passing time. (Following the principle of John Cage's ‘Indeterminacy' lecture where the pace of his stories is adjusted to fill the time available).

Interpolated within this one-minute-one-movement layout is a recurrent refrain where the soloist articulates one of the basic harmonic foundations of a number of the one minute sections (six dominant 7ths - on E, F sharp, C, A, B, D) in an undisguised Bachian fashion. The slow arpeggios in the later variants of the refrain not unexpectedly find themselves sharing a bed with the opening of Berg's Violin Concerto. (Can an orchestration be considered to be a 'found object'? I have adopted Berg's orchestra, with two exceptions - I have omitted the alto sax, too often associated with my music but not with his, and replaced Berg's percussion section with marimba and vibraphone, mallet instruments which enjoy a particularly cosy relationship with the soloist in my Concerto). My initial compositional plan was the juxtaposition of the contradictory; but while I was orchestrating I found myself indulging in the process of, so to speak, 'hand tinting' my one minute 'frames' so as to create connections where initially there were none. And in the organising of these images I was aware of the fact that when taking photographs one generally takes a number of shots of the same subject before moving on to the next. That kind of 'bracketing' plays no part in the layout of my musical contact sheet although occasionally an 'early' image reappears as a 'late' image and tempi are sometimes bracketed as follows:

1. Waltz 1: crotchet = 66
2. crotchet = 52
[Refrain 1]
3. crotchet = 88
4. crotchet = 129
5. crotchet = 129 (solo reference to section 4)
[Refrain 2]
6. crotchet = 139
7. crotchet = 144
8. crotchet = 144
9. Waltz 2: crotchet = 156
[Refrain 3]
10. crotchet = 120
11. crotchet = 80
12. crotchet = 120
13. crotchet = 48
14. crotchet = 120 (= section 3)
[Refrain 4]
15. crotchet = 120 (= section 10)
16. crotchet = 108
17. crotchet = 156 (=section 8)
18. crotchet = 52 (= section 2)

Alban Berg's Violin Concerto was dedicated to "the memory of an angel", Manon Gropius. My Concerto is dedicated to the memory of Daniel Toscan du Plantier, a friend and neighbour - certainly no angel but a major figure in the recording and film industries. And, it goes without saying, that I thank Gidon Kremer for his inspirational playing and musicianship.

The Violin Concerto was commissioned by Stiftung Schleswig-Holstein Musik Festival. It was first performed by Gidon Kremer (violin) and the Schleswig-Holstein Musik Festival Orchester conducted by Dennis Russell Davies at the Musikhalle, Hamburg, Germany on 29 August 2003.

© Michael Nyman 2003

Score Preview

  • Ensemble
    Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della Rai
    Francesco D'Orazio, violin
    Tito Ceccherini
    Amadeus DEAP:
This post-modern concerto fascinates because it seems, despite its patchwork character, to develop a common tonal denominator and a strict structure - the aforementioned "Contact Sheet," which closes at the end with the resumption of the mystical beginning. The work becomes a violin concerto in a unique way. The full orchestra sounds sometimes dazzlingly direct, sometimes spherically enraptured, often pulsatingly jazzy or splendidly full-blooded, melodic and brassy. It grinds out a quite self-sufficient atmosphere, which in its self-reflexive gyrations reminds one distantly of minimalist music. The solo violin however takes up a hyper-nervous active position - active but only within the oblique soundworld. Throughout the 25 minute span of the work, Gidon Kremer on his smoking Stradivari strings performs a miracle of differentiation within a solo part. The violin's improvisational style, which moves convulsively in all directions, is seen by Kremer himself as one of the most difficult tasks of his career.
Kieler Nachrichten,01/09/2003
The applause following a première is seldom sufficient. So what kind of work must it be that provides for ten-minutes of cheering. A strike of genius - or at least a highly agreeable piece, which enables people to experience and suffer. Michael Nyman achieved this effect with his film music, and the "Piano"-man has succeeded again with his new violin concert. Nothing for the purists or the grail guardians of the avant-garde, but all the more successful with fans of sensual tonal portraits and consonant chords. As often in his film compositions, the Briton created a gripping concerto base here too, on which Gidon Kremer had to master finger-breaking cascades. True bow artistry. The concert is a series of one-minute segments joined together - acoustic snapshots, according to Nyman, through whose varying arrangement he seeks to ascertain the subjective perception of time. Greetings from old master John Cage and his famous lecture series "Vagueness."
Hamburger Morgenpost,01/09/2003
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