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John Harbison

Publisher: AMP

Concerto for Bass Viol (2005)
Associated Music Publishers Inc
Soloists and Orchestra
Sub Category
Soloists and Chamber Orchestra
Year Composed
20 Minutes
Solo Instrument(s)
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Programme Note
John Harbison Concerto for Bass Viol (2005)
  • The concerto is available in two keys — C or D — in accordance with the soloist's tuning. Piano reductions in both keys are included in publication 50486941. Please specify the key when renting orchestra parts.
Composer's note:

This concerto was commissioned by the International Society of Bassists. It is in three movements and lasts roughly twenty minutes.

The first movement, Lamento, begins with an Introduction which reminds the listener that the bass viol is the oldest instrument in the modern orchestra, grand survivor from the medieval viol family. Near the end of the introduction, the latter two movements are foreshadowed. The Lament begins under emotional duress, gradually moving to a more elegiac tone which may mask a more dangerous state of mind. A closing section mimes sonic images of farewell.

The second movement is a Cavatina, which my Italian dictionary defines as "a sustained Air." Having played in various chamber music pieces bearing this title, I believe Cavatina has come to mean a song led throughout by a principal player, which eventually arrives at an unpredicted dramatic destination.

Rondo: return. In the classical tradition it refers to the return of themes. In this piece I am playing with the return of a very short motto, which becomes increasingly rough and forthright.

My main experience of the bass viol is traceable to conducting over fifty Bach cantatas and playing in many jazz groups. In both situations my colleague played two roles: ensemble catalyst, and soloist. I've drawn on these associations often, not just in this piece.

— John Harbison

Version in D (Soloist Tuning)

Edwin Barker, doublebass Boston Symphony/Levine Tanglewood Contemporary Music Festival 3 August 2007; Lenox, MA Harbison's [Concerto for Bass Viol and Orchestra] showcases the mellow singing tone of the bass, and its capacity for virtuoso display not unlike its more petite string siblings. The first two movements are full of expressive solo lines often colorfully annotated by the woodwinds, and a prominent role is given to the orchestra's entire bass section. Bright splashes of percussion mark the rapid finale.
Jeremy Eichler, The Boston Globe,06/08/2007 imaginatively crafted composition influenced by Bach and jazz that conferred star status on an underappreciated instrument.
Valerie Scher, San Diego Union-Tribune,12/03/2007
San Diego Symphony Principal Bassist Jeremy Kurtz brought this distinguished new work to Copley Symphony Hall, with Music Director Jahja Ling conducting an attentive and finely detailed reading of the piece... The opening movement, Lamento, invokes for a fleeting moment the cadences of a medieval viol consort (from which the "modern" bass is actually descended), but quickly abandons such neo-medievalism for a much freer contemporary counterpoint. Soon a deeply chromatic lament emerges, with the bass as its chief exponent. The second movement, Cavatina, deconstructs the genre of the Baroque Trio Sonata, combining the solo bass in a series of friendly duels with other solo voices, always grounded by the true bass line played by the rest of the bass section. If this sounds a bit academic, the effect was anything but. This movement was frisky and playful, allowing Kurtz to demonstrate his agile, lithe technique and a timbre that is as sweet as it is elegantly focused. The finale, a jazzy Rondo, gave Kurtz a few splashy riffs to sport his chops...
Kenneth Herman, San,12/03/2007
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