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ClassicsOnline Home » PISTON: Violin Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 / Fantasia for Violin
By Ivan March
By John Tyler Tuttle
Le Monde de la Musique
During an interview in 1958, Walter Piston stated. “The major problem for the composer must be to preserve and develop his individuality. He must resist the constant temptation to follow this or that fashion. He must find what it is he wishes to say in music and how best to say it, subjecting his work to the severest self-criticism... Strength of will and faith in one's creative gift are essential... The composer must judge for himself in these matters, with self-reliance based on a thorough knowledge of his craft and a capacity for independent thinking as an individual creative artist.”
Piston's individuality and Americanism is very evident in his Concerto No.1 for Violin and Orchestra of 1939. The work was dedicated to Ruth Posselt, who also premiered the work on 18 March 1940 with Leon Barzin conducting the National Orchestral Association in Carnegie Hall, New York. Piston's own notes on the work were printed in the program booklet and in later notes when the work was frequently performed by Hugo Kolberg. Piston wrote. “The opening movement is an Allegro energico in 3/4 time and has a sonata form. D major is the tonality. The first theme is given out by the solo violin after introductory chords. This main theme is composed of two elements, one broad and lyric, the other rhythmic in character. The second theme is quiet, simple, first accompanied by muted strings. The development section is based upon the two elements of theme 1. There follows a regular recapitulation resolved into a coda in faster tempo. The slow movement is an Andantino molto tranquillo in 4/4, the tonality is F minor. The introduction presents the theme first as a flute solo. The form of the music is that of a theme with variations. Three variations of the theme follow. Finally, we hear the recapitulation of the theme entrusted to the solo violin. The last movement is an Allegro con spirito again in the main key of D Major. It is set in the form of a rondo in 2/4 meter. The first theme is announced by the solo violin after a short introduction. The second theme is a rhythmic transformation of the second theme of the first movement. The third theme is heard as a canon between horn and solo violin, over a staccato accompaniment. The cadenza combines theme II and III, before a coda concludes.” According to biographer Howard Pollack, Piston's Violin Concerto No.1 is “closely modelled after Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto. From the standpoint of nationalism, their first movements are the most personal, their slow movements are subtly tinged by popular song, and their finales are clearly evocative of national dance. The nationalism of the Piston Concerto, however, does not preclude a contrapuntal sophistication typical of its composer; and one finds a good deal of melodic inversion, contrapuntal inversion, and canon in the score. There are also two striking thematic transformations: the first movement's second theme becomes the last movement's second theme, and the slow movement theme becomes the finale's episodic E minor theme. Piston, ever crafty, has the solo violin simultaneously play both transformations in the cadenza to the last movement. It is as if Bach wrote the Tchaikovsky Concerto -- in America!”
Piston's Concerto No.2 for Violin and Orchestra was commissioned by the Ford Foundation through Joseph Fuchs, to whom it is dedicated. It was composed during the winter and spring of 1959-60 and first performed on 28 October 1960 with Mr. Fuchs as soloist and the Boston Symphony Orchestra under the direction of William Steinberg. As was the case with the First Violin Concerto, Piston provided somewhat dry notes for the new work. “The first movement is in binary form, in which the second part is a recapitulation of the first part, with some variation and development. There are two contrasting themes, each presented by the solo violin. The first theme is legarto and expressible in character, the second is a little faster, more angular and rhythmic. The over-all key is G. The slow movement consists of four closely integrated sections, on a single theme of serene and tranquil nature over an accompaniment of divided violas. The second section is marked by a duet between the solo voice and the flute treating the melody in canonic variation. In the third section the theme appears in varied form in the orchestra while the solo plays a decorative obbligato. The final section is a coda to the movement. The tonality is E. The third movement is a lively rondo with two themes, in the form ABABA. The tonality is A.” Concise, crisp and, musicologically, to the point, Piston's description of his work does not mention the dissonant harmonies, lush textures, changing tempos and soloistic brilliance of this work. The second movement could best be described as melodramatic, dark and full of tender simplicity. The finale is a sparkling, lilting, mercurial rondo, where the violin is never submerged and never has to fight to be heard while it soars with ease and elegance.
The Fantasia for Violin and Orchestra was commissioned for Salvatore Accardo and the "Congregation of the Arts" at Dartmouth College by Mario di Bonaventura, and was first performed on 11 March 1973, by Accardo and the Dartmouth Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Bonaventura. According to Piston biographer, Howard Pollack, the composer was decidedly impressed with Accardo's virtuosic interpretations of Paganini and Bach. As a result, Piston created in the Fantasia a solo part full of “fast, tricky passages of Paganinian virtuosity, as well as slow, supple melodies of Bachian intensity.” The Fantasia is divided into five sections, bracketed by "Lento" sections that have been described as “painfully aware and transcendentally serene”. These beautiful sections encase the "Allegro" (a musical commentary on an overwhelmingly hectic world), an "Adagio" (where the violinist's tragic aria is given support by the orchestra's dark chords), and an "Allegro energico" (the most joyous sections, with an almost "desperate" quality to it). According to Pollack, "these five sections not only form a slow-fast-slow-fast-slow arch, but are themselves arched, and may be thought of as a set of variations." The Fantasia is a deeply profound work from Piston's last years.
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