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Violin Concerto No.1 ‘1914’

I’m writing this blog in Istanbul airport, on the way back to London after two days of very promising rehearsals with the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic, conducted by the extremely dynamic Sascha Goetzel. As ever I am posting these notes just the day before the world premier of the Concerto… It’s been such a nonstop busy period of Orchestral composing over the last hie months or so, that it’s only now that things are finally winding down (with the composing of my last big project of the summer, a collaboration with brilliant choreographer Shobana Jeyasingh and Rambert Dance company, just coming to an end last week).

The first discussions of this Violin Concerto began two years ago when I met Daniel Hope in Berlin at the recording session for ‘Spheres‘ (which I composed for his recent album of the same name). Spheres had originally been the second movement of a sketch for an incomplete Violin Concerto I had started the year before, and when Daniel heard this he said that he would love to perform the completed the Concerto, he even joked that seeing as he had recently been performing my grandfather, Sergei Prokofiev’s 2nd Violin Concerto, this would be ‘Prokofiev 3’ (no pressure!). Nearly a year later Daniel emailed me with the exciting news that there was a chance that the BBC Proms and Luxembourg Philharmonie would commission the new Concerto to be premiered in 2014. As these premiers would be in the centenary year of the out-break of the first world war, Daniel suggested that the concerto could commemorate the Great War. I had recently read how many visual artists who had survived the war found it very hard to create after such a devastating experience and particularly struggled to depict it artistically, so I wasn’t immediately sure about the idea of composing a ‘war concerto’. However, I have always been very interested in WW1; studying the war-poets and also acting in Oh What A Lovely War as a teenager had a big effect on me, and more recently I had been really stuck by Pat Barker’s ‘Regeneration’ Trilogy. I then had the idea that the concerto could be about the broader events of the year 1914, not just the devastation of the war, but the time leading up to it, the optimism as well as the devastation… This led to the loosely chronological approach that I’ve taken for this Concerto, but it also meant that the previous Concerto sketch that I had was no longer suitable and this concerto should be completely new.

The ‘1914’ theme would also allow me to explore the dramatic and personal aspects that I think are inherent in the Classical Concerto form. The soloist (facing the audience) gives a concerto a strong personal connection with the audience; add to this the multitude of timbres and characters that are present in the orchestra, and the concerto seems to be an ideal vehicle for creating a dramatic work with many different characters, emotions, and images.

A ‘Programmatic’ or ‘Cinematic’ Concerto?

So, the concerto is subtitled ‘1914’ – but as I said it is not a ‘war concerto’ – rather it tells the story of the events and a wide range of characters of 1914. The concerto looks backs to 1914 in different ways, sometimes stepping back in time quite authentically with clear use of musical styles of the time (almost like a costume-drama), but other times observing events from a distance, aware of the bigger-picture, or going deeper into personal emotions in a more abstract way – to the point of losing obvious historical placement.

I’m not sure if this concerto is ‘programmatic‘ in 19th century way, I’m tempted to call it ‘post-cinematic’. The perspective often changes, from more personal views & individual characters to wider historic & political aspects – often quite quickly – like fast edits in a film (but edits that would not necessarily work in film). Daniel Hope on Solo Violin plays many characters, and different sections of the orchestra join him in painting a range of scenes and thoughts from various perspectives; moving from very personal close-ups, then zooming out to much wider global over-views.

In fact, I think Orchestral composition allows us to illustrate historical events and human experiences in quite a different and often more fluid way than cinema or literature, and though my approach has certainly been inspired by growing up in a culture heavily influence by cinema, I’ve been able to play with perspective and emotion in a way that is unique to music.

Influences & Objective approach to WW1

Also, it’s important to note that though my personal education growing up in the UK gives me the British perspective on WW1, I worked hard to make the piece have a more objective view-point, and I think I have drawn a picture of 1914 that doesn’t take sides and illustrates the suffering of both camps. Just before I started composing I read Joseph Roth’s ‘Radetzky March’ which gives a brilliant insight the decline of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and this was a big influence.

Form of the Concerto

The concerto has 4 movements:

I  Andante (introduction) – Marcia Triofante – Meccanico aggressivo – Furioso
(Last March of The Old Times)

II  Maestoso – Punto morto – Preoccupato
(The Cavalry ride again – Stalemate)

III  Lento – Mesto Riflessivo – Terrificante -Caotico
(The trenches at night)

IV  Andante Nauseato – Allucinante – Adagio Luminoso
(Shell-shocked)

The first two movements have clearer references to older musical voices of the period, but with the monster of modern warfare gradually rising as a more contemporary, mechanical sound starts to dominate. The last two movements focus more on the experiences of the individual soldiers, and in particular the desolation of trench warfare. On a broader level, the concerto also charts the end of the ‘old world’ and the inevitable rise of the ‘modern world’, and over the whole work, it increasingly moves into more and more contemporary sound-world.

Ideas behind each movement

I’ve been questioning how much detail a listener should know before listening to a ‘programmatic’-type work like this… Knowing the title of the work is important, and also the titles of each movement give helpful directions to the listener, but after that I’m keen on the listener finding their own meanings, images and stories in the music. However, a lot of listeners really like to have more details behind the music. So below are some ‘pointers’ for images and themes in each movement:

I
Introduction: a prayer, evocation – from the Solo Violin over a shimmering, whispering texture of distant voices from the orchestra. A moment to set the scene, rewind back 100 years to that unprecedented ‘Great War’

Andante Marziale: The last March of the ‘Old Times’
Images of Cheerful optimism & nationalism of 1914, and the out-dated 19th century attitudes of the ruling Generals, Kings, Kaisers, Tsars that still dominated in 1914. But the unescapable rise of industry and the modern age is disrupting the status quo, cracks are showing, the old-marches are interrupted, frustrated, and ultimately mechanicism dominates. The movement ends with panic & excitement over the reality & fear of war, and includes panicky trio between 3 solo Violins: Daniel Hope + the leaders of 1st & 2nd Violins.

II
The last Cavalry Charge:
Inspired by the disastrous French Cavalry charges of the Battle of Frontiers (22nd August 1914), that started with patriotic excitement and ended with complete obliteration of the French Cavalry (some of whom who were actually dressed in Napoleonic, brightly coloured uniforms) by Modern Machine-guns & Shells. This battle epitomises, in the most explicit way, the end of an era, in particular that calvary had been the dominant force in all European battles – but never again.
Stale-Mate:
Both sides are forced into stale-mate as trench-warfare emerges, every offensive is met with a blockade.
Then – a moment aside, with an ‘indifferent’ Violin solo that reflects the continuing naivety some of the generals (e.g. Tsar of Russia, Austrian Emperor)

III
The Trench at Night:
The numbing existence of trench warfare, the long sleepless hours waiting… The soldier exhausted, hoping for an end, dreaming of home, family and lost friends – rising to an emotional climax in the middle.
The Battle will not stop:
The heavy march of war returns, the inevitable & inexorable mechanisms of modern warfare will not stop, and ends in a chaotic battle.

IV
Shell-shock:
The soldiers are mentally damaged – shell-shocked.
The release:
Death, injury or madness becomes a welcome fate as the young soldier is finally released from the pain.

 

Further notes on musical features:

– Regular, predictable, safe, duple, march metres of the old times = All easy 2s & 4s. The new world pushes against this with 5s & 10s (the metric world crushing the old imperial system).
– ‘Poly-stylistic’ approach to paint 1914 from a range of perspectives: References to popular march rhythms & idioms of the period. + References to modernism (the emerging new direction). + Less traditional harmonies and textures symbolising the modern world & contemporary society that developed after WW1.
– The impending rise of the modern age: insistent driving percussion. The ‘unnatural’ noises and non-diatonic harmonies of modern warfare & industry,
– The stillness, the waiting of trench-warfare; moments of harmonic stasis in the orchestra – with the Solo Violin searching, the individual hopes, emotions.

 

PERFORMANCES:

// 29 July 2014 //
G Prokofiev Violin Concerto No1 ’1914′ (world premier)
Violin: Daniel Hope // Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic / Conductor: Sascha Goetzel
6:30pm @ BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall, London.
http://www.royalalberthall.com/tickets/bbc-proms/prom16/default.aspx

The concert will be broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 at 6:30pm 29 July (available worldwide on BBC iplayer).
Televised on: BBC Four TV on Sunday 31 August

// 13 Sept 2014 //
G Prokofiev Violin Concerto No1 ’1914′
Violin: Daniel Hope // State Academic Symphony Orchestra of Russia / Conductor: Vladimir Jurowski
Tchaikovsky Concert Hall, Moscow
info/tickets

// 15 Sept // Tyumen, Central Russia
// 16 Sept – Chelyabinsk, Central Russia

// 22 October 2014 //
G Prokofiev Violin Concerto No1 ’1914′
Violin: Daniel Hope // Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg / Conductor: Sascha Goetzel
Salle de Concerts Grande-Duchesse Joséphine-Charlotte, Luxembourg
http://www.philharmonie.lu/en/programm/war-and-pieces/438

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