Composer and Lifetime Achievement
Classic BRIT Award Winner 2012
John Williams' violin concerto is a powerful, emotional work that continued the twentieth century's rich vein of such works in modern harmonies, but within the neo-Classical tradition. Williams wrote it at a time when he had established himself as a leading film and television score composer, but was not widely known to the public. Even with the composer's growing popularity, the concerto did not receive its world premiere for more than four years after its completion. (Mark Peskanov with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Leonard Slatkin conducting on January 19, 1981.) There is very little of Williams' Hollywood style in this concerto, which is in every respect a neo-Classical work that flirts with atonality and uses a fully chromatic harmonic and melodic palette that builds on the same forms used by Bartók, Walton, and others. The work is about 30 minutes long, in a fast-slow-fast three-movement layout; however, Williams' film music skills-or perhaps his native skills that make him an outstanding film composer-are evident in at least two respects. No matter how chromatic or abstract they may become, the melodic lines command the attention of the listener and stay in the memory so that they guide the listener through the work, and the orchestration is clear and colorful. The opening movement is initially marked Moderato. It starts with the violin alone, with woodwinds slowly appearing and entwining about the soloists' lines. (Woodwinds play an important part in the concerto. The 1988 revision of the score added an E flat pedal bass.) The lyrical opening theme contrasts with a cocky second subject and the main body of the movement is marked Allegro. After the dramatic high point of the movement, the violin gets a brilliant cadenza and the concerto quietly ends. The central Adagio is the emotional heart of the work. It is here, if anyplace, that Williams expresses the feelings occupying him at that time. For while just before he gained his great fame, he lost his wife, actress and singer Barbara Ruick Williams, who unexpectedly died in Reno of a cerebral hemorrhage during a film shoot. (Her best-known screen performance is probably that of Carrie Pipperidge in Rodgers and Hammerstein's Carousel.) The concerto as a whole is dedicated to her memory and the elegiac tone of this movement and its emotional arc leads one to think of these circumstances. The Adagio begins calmly with a lyrical theme, but the music explodes into frantic action, only later in the movement finding peace again. The Finale starts with an introduction that seems a battle between a Maestoso statement of six chords, but followed by a few bars of Presto tempo, then some more Maestoso. The movement then settles into the fast tempo, with the six introductory chords always seeming to try to repeat themselves, but always frustrated by the violin's interest in being fast and brilliant.