Violin Concerto

3-3-3-3 4-4-3-1 4perc 2hp.cel/strings [duration 22’]

Peter Dickinson’s Violin Concerto was commissioned by the BBC in memory of the great British violinist Ralph Holmes (1937-84): the premiere was given by the distinguished Viennese performer Ernst Kovacic with the BBC Philharmonic conducted by Bryden Thomson in Leeds Town Hall, and subsequently on BBC Radio 3, on 31 January 1987.

The concerto began when Ralph Holmes and Peter Dickinson gave a series of performances of Beethoven’s Spring Sonata in 1981 [their BBC recording is now on CD with Heritage HTGCD 228]. Many of Dickinson’s works have connections with popular music - there is a blues song in the Organ Concerto (1971) and a rag in the Piano Concerto (1984) - but in the Violin Concerto the main theme of Beethoven’s Spring Sonata is turned into a waltz as well as a popular song of 1930s vintage. The Concerto can be heard as an allegro-adagio-scherzo-finale layout in one movement, with the faster music at the beginning and at the end, but there are further subdivisions with dramatic confrontations in between.

The opening consists of trumpet fanfares, which leave echoes behind them. Out of these the solo violin emerges as a lone voice but with its own resonances. These lead to a set of variations - four sections in which the piccolo has the waltz, which is gradually taken over by the soloist as a popular song. Each of these sections ends with a violent eruption. The loud long chord, diminuendo, which ends the last of these, gives rise to the four adagio sections.

In the first adagio the soloist, very high, explores the echoes and leaves more behind. The second one is a dirge, loud over a pounding bass drum, marked lamentoso. The third is a luxuriant setting for the appearances of the popular song (first heard on another solo violin) and the soloist’s ascending descant to it. This calm eventually disappears as a descending mini-cadenza for the soloist provokes new tensions in the fourth adagio where the soloist is this time loud, creating rather than responding to the echoes and resonances.

At the height of this dramatic section the soloist introduces comedy - a miniature scherzo with Beethoven’s tune swung over a jazz bass with snorts of the brass chorale, which formed the underpinning of the earlier theme and variations. The mood of the finale emerges after a new sound from a set of tom-toms. It consists of continuous developments against a background of the waltz interrupted only once by a laceratingly loud tutti based on the popular song and its descant simultaneously. The jazz personality of the violin then increasingly takes over.

The finale is obsessed with a rhythm (the swung Beethoven) and the conflict brought about by superimposing the march-time (4/4) of the jazzy fragments against the continuous waltz (3/4), resolved only at the very end. It seems thoroughly consistent that a concerto designed to be a tribute to a great artist should end with a kind of celebration.

The Violin Concerto is published by Novello.

© 2008-24 Estate of Peter Dickinson