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ClassicsOnline Home » CORIGLIANO, J.: Violin and Piano Music (Bieler, Tichman)
One of America’s finest and most widely recognized composers, John Corigliano has won several Grammy Awards, the Pulitzer Prize and dozens of other honors. His hauntingly beautiful Chaconne and virtuosic The Red Violin Caprices, both based on his Academy Awardwinning film score for The Red Violin, attest to his maverick imagination, while a famous passage from Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony is the seed from which Fantasia on an Ostinato grew. The Violin Sonata, one of Corigliano’s earliest works, combines sophistication and vigor.
By Robert R Riley
By Lawson Taitte
The Dallas Morning News
By Lawson Taitte
By David Denton
John Corigliano (b. 1938)
Violin Sonata • The Red Violin Chaconne and Caprices • Fantasia on an Ostinato
Born in New York City on 16 February 1938, John Corigliano studied with Otto Luening at Columbia University, graduating in 1959. He has pursued a varied career including working as a music programmer for several radio stations, assisting Leonard Bernstein with his Young People’s Concerts, a record producer for CBS and teacher at various institutions including the Juilliard School. He became the first Composer-in-Residence of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and his music has been the recipient of numerous prizes including the Grawemeyer Award in 1991 and two Grammy awards in 1991 and 1996. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1991, in which year his opera The Ghosts of Versailles was given its première by the New York Metropolitan Opera, thus making it the company’s first new commission for a quarter of a century.
Although his music has sometimes been described as being in a neo-tonal manner, Corigliano’s stylistic range encompasses the gamut of modern techniques, including serialism and minimalism. Something of this inclusiveness is evident from his chamber music which, if less substantial as a body than either his orchestral or choral music, includes several major works. Nor should the idiomatic nature of his writing for violin come as a surprise, given that his father was for many years a violinist in the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.
A fluency fully apparent in the Violin Sonata (1963) that is among his earliest acknowledged works. The Allegro begins with a lively discourse between the two instruments, complemented by a suaver but still animated idea as the music proceeds. The initial music is given a varied restatement, before the movement draws to its end with an excited flourish. The Andantino focuses on a wistful theme that presently takes on greater intensity. There is a subdued central section that makes play with aspects of the theme, then the latter is expressively restated and an unexpectedly vigorous climax is reached; the movement recalling its central section as it winds down to a pensive close. The Lento opens with declamatory piano writing, after which the violin enters in plangent recitative. It has a cadenza-like passage at the centre of the movement, before the piano re-emerges in a close of hushed uncertainty. The Allegro is launched in greatest possible contrast, its toccata-like momentum enhanced by the scintillating instrumental interplay. A lyrical theme provides for a degree of respite, then the initial music returns and the two main ideas alternate on the way to a forceful climax; after which, the music wends its effervescent way to a decisive close.
A rather different perspective is evinced by the Chaconne that Corigliano created from his music for the 1997 film The Red Violin. Directed by François Girard, this tells the story of an ‘old master’ violin and the journey it undergoes as it changes hands between owners (legal and otherwise). Rather than simply create a loose-knit suite from his score, Corigliano took the melody that recurs throughout the score as basis for a chaconne—a set of variations unfolding over a melodic pattern that is constantly present in the bass register (and hence often referred to as the ‘ground bass’), so guaranteeing a formal and harmonic consistency over the music’s extended span. It is worth noting he later orchestrated the work [Naxos 8.559302], and (with violinist Joshua Bell in mind) composed another two movements to create The Red Violin Concerto.
Out of the soloist’s multi-stopped harmonies and also the piano’s fugitive gestures, the music gradually opens out both melodically and expressively, the emergent violin theme reaching a brief but impassioned climax that is pointedly countered with aggressive writing from piano. The violin responds accordingly, leading to an often brutal series of exchanges that eventually collapses to leave the violin musing distractedly over spare piano phrases. The violin continues with this air of glacial sadness before further harsh exchanges and the heightened return of the yearning main theme. A cadenza-like passage ensues, crystallizing the whole work’s expressive essence, before a spectral passage (in which the piano strings are played upon directly) brings about the last phase—with the main theme now presented climactically and the violin writing gaining in intensity before rushing upward for the decisive close.
Composed in 1985 (with a varied orchestral version following a year later) Fantasia on an Ostinato has become one of Corigliano’s most played works. In his programme-note, the composer writes “Fantasia on an Ostinato is based on a famous repetitive passage by Ludwig van Beethoven (second movement of Symphony No. 7). That music is unique in his output because of a relentless ostinato that continues, unvaried except for a long crescendo and added accompanimental voices, for over four minutes. Beethoven’s near-minimalistic use of material and my own desire to write a piece in which the performer is responsible for decisions concerning the durations of repeated patterns led to my first experiment in ‘minimalist’ techniques.
“I approached this task with mixed feelings over the contemporary phenomenon known as Minimalism, for while I admire its emphasis on attractive textures and also its occasional ability to achieve a hypnotic quality (something that it shares with late Beethoven), I do not care for its excessive repetition, its lack of architecture, and its overall emotional sterility. In Fantasia on an Ostinato I attempted to combine the attractive aspects of minimalism with a convincing structural and emotional expression. My method was to parallel the binary form of the Beethoven Seventh Symphony ostinato by dividing the Fantasia into two parts. The first part explores the rhythmic elements of the ostinato and the harmonic implications of its first half. The second part develops and extends the ostinato’s second half, transforming its pungent major-minor descent into a chain of harmonies over which a series of patterns grows ever more ornate. This climaxes in the return of the obsessive Beethoven rhythm and finally the appearance of the Beethoven theme itself”.
Corigliano adds that “The pianist should be aware that color, variety and imagination are essential to the successful performance of this piece. The performer’s sense of fantasy and, in the central section, his or her decisions concerning the durations of those repeated patterns will exert a considerable influence on the work’s final shape (which is intended to vary from performance to performance)”.
Corigliano has also revisited his score for The Red Violin to create The Red Violin Caprices (2002). Even more than in related works, content is here allied to a technique that makes strenuous demands on the performer. The Theme itself is identical in substance to that heard in the earlier Chaconne, though harmonized rather differently. The First Variation is a study of Paganinian virtuosity, while the Second Variation is a sustained exploration of multi-stopping and incisive passage-work. The Third Variation is more restrained and exhibits a folk-like tinge; something which the Fourth Variation expands into an ‘aria’ of rhetorical eloquence. The Fifth Variation provides a surging rhythmic conclusion to the overall sequence.
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