The Violin Concerto, op. 15 was written in 1938-39 when a young Britten of 25 was composing in an atmosphere entrenched with the brutalities of the Spanish Civil War and the tension which would lead to the outbreak of World War I.
More locally, young Benjamin Britten was feeling increasing artistically isolated because of “the low status music had in Britain and how oppressive militant officials of parochialism could be.” His left-wing politics, homosexuality, and friendships with openly gay writers such as Auden also put him at odds with his country politically, and he left for America in 1939 where he finished his violin concerto.
While the piece is not programmatic, most of the music in the concerto can be loosely categorized as being rigid or sensual and one can hear in the struggle between rigidity and sensuality the other dualities of war and peace, artistic freedom and parochialism, society and individual, law and homosexuality, morality and desire.
The violin concerto was clearly shaped by the external and internal struggles of Britten’s time as well as those eternal struggles shared by all of humanity.
The first movement starts with a quiet timpani flourish which repeats, stirring the rest of the orchestra to enter. The strings sigh and the timpani flourish continues in the bassoon to set the stage for the solo violin entrance. The solo violin starts by singing a beautiful melody. Like shadows on a clear day, the song darkens and lightens until the accumulated intensity launches the next section where the solo violin barks militaristic rhythms and tries to sing through melodies broken into jagged lines.
The agitation infects the orchestra; they take the cubist shapes and militant barks as the solo violin tries to heroically sing on the lowest string, lashing out for high notes only to fall again.
Slowly, the solo violin ascends, struggling through scales and constant failed attempts until it finally reaches the highest point. The solo violin stops here, insisting on it’s place in repeated octaves as the militant orchestra, also at its highest point escalates and pushes the solo violin down an octave-glissando rabbit hole.
The orchestra joins the solo violin in the fall and they revel, taunting and celebrating with heightened intensity in war-like rhythms. The orchestra’s raucous celebration comes to an end when they disagree between the notes F and F# (the same ambiguous notes which end the piece,) both are played at the same time causing a dissonance which gapes like a wound and allows enough uncertainty for the solo violin to enter again.
Tentative and wounded, the solo violin begins a series of questioning bird-calls which eventually lapse into an anguished presentation of the melody it first began the piece with. Just as the solo violin gains enough courage and makes it up to the note it begins the piece with, the timpani plays the militant rhythm, haunting the solo violin.
The solo violin immediately writhes and retreats, but the woodwinds now sing out fragments of the questioning bird-calls, encouraging the solo violin to keep going. It isn’t enough, however, and the solo violin begins a slow descent, helplessly sinking, all the while trying to reach higher and higher in arpeggiated twitches.
The solo violin reaches it’s near-death and left alone by the orchestra, begins to rise slowly, happening on rescue and resurrection with harmonics which lift the weighted violin part into the air.
The orchestra and solo violin change places in the recapitulation. After recent harrowing experiences, the solo violin resolves to be rigid, taking on the timpani flourish of the beginning as well as the militant rhythm in pizzicato as the orchestra plays the song. Like sirens, they try to cajole the solo violin to join, but the solo violin part gets more agitated, unable to sing because of it’s angularities.
The orchestra reaches their highest point in the opening song and the solo violin plummets in response, giving up on it’s resolution and sings the song too in its most impassioned and desperate form. The solo violin loses steam and starts to question and reason its recent indulgence with pleading arpeggios and weighty scales before surrendering into the last iteration of the opening melody; here only the solo violin and percussion play- the orchestra and the opening melody are both reduced to a shell of what they once were.
The timpani plays the now fatal motive from the beginning, marching the solo violin on. The solo violin part, shackled with the sinister heartbeat of the timpani tries to play doublestops and chords, clutching to any and all passing notes, but is unable to hang onto anything. Just impressions of sadness and regret are left, depicted in sighing duples before the violin is rescued again by harmonics.
The movement ends this way, with the eerie hollow singing of the violin harmonics over the orchestra’s spectral pizzicato of the militant theme.
Devilish, caustic, and malicious, the second movement begins suddenly, mid-dance.
It recalls the militaristic taunting of the previous movement and is also somewhat palindromic in form.
The movement begins with urgent scale runs from the orchestra and the solo violin is treated as a percussion instrument before beginning a louche duet with the bassoon and other woodwind instruments.
The orchestra joins in, mimicking the grotesque smearing gestures of the solo violin part, crying out like newborn harpies until the percussive solo violin re-enters with octaves and sneering glissandi, challenging the orchestra which responds with full-bodied menace.
The violin takes the scale runs the orchestra has at the beginning of the movement beginning rhetorically and ending insistently, passing the scales and urgency off to the orchestra.
The orchestra tries to end the movement emphatically by repeatedly cadencing but on the final cadence, the violin begins the pleading middle section to this movement. Starting intimately and lost, the solo violin gets more sincere, tenacious, and high in range with each repetition of the theme. In the last repetition, the solo violin and oboe cry out the same pleading theme offset from each other- their inability to find each other though struggling with the same painful theme emphasizes the lost feeling of this middle section.
The solo violin melts into a lower range and quietly pleads, seeming only to go through the motions. The lower strings quake beneath the pleading with the percussive opening material, which now with one note removed, is the same gesture as the fatal timpani motive from the first movement.
The solo violin in response drags itself slowly upwards, hoping for a harmonic rescue like the first movement, but unable to find one, starts to spin in place at the highest range of the violin. The piccolo enter here continuing the high-frequency register and motive of the solo violin and the tuba begins an ominous lurching theme at the lowest register.
The dance of depravity from the beginning of the movement returns in a hushed disembodied echo. The orchestra and solo violin gain corporeality by way of dynamics and gesture as the dance continues until an outbreak of scales in the orchestra bring back the percussive opening gestures of the solo violin in a frenzied riot as the orchestra screechingly deplores behind the madness.
The solo violin ends as the orchestra continues in an unrelenting lament, crying the pleading theme from earlier in the movement as the woodwinds and brass drone the ominous tuba theme. The solo violin joins in the wailing just as the orchestra reaches its climax and the violin is left alone thrashing furiously at the beginning of the cadenza before plunging to the depths of the instrument’s register.
Alone for the first time in the piece, the solo violin begins a monologue, dealing with the aftershocks of the previous movements by recalling previous themes and motives and agonizing over them. The first movement fatal timpani motive is followed by the pleading second movement theme and both are then repeated in apparition-like harmonics coming to the rescue once again. The harmonics are interrupted by the timpani and militaristic theme and this time the harmonics follow, fully converted to the militaristic theme. The solo violin resolves again to be rigid, playing repetitions of the barbed timpani motive, losing more and more control until finally, we get the turning point of the piece- the moment where the dualities of militant/rigidity and melody/sensuality fracture. The solo violin plays the melody and plucks the militant theme in the left hand simultaneously- this is the first time the solo violin plays both of the main themes and characters at the same time. Because this technique on violin of playing and plucking at the same time is more difficult, it is almost impossible for the melody to sound beautiful.
Britten imposes this limitation on beauty for the violin here to prove that the two themes can’t co-exist.
The fracture of this duality destroys all former modes/themes of existence for the solo violin and leads to the honest searching and unknowing of the last movement.
There is no break between the second movement cadenza and the last movement. As the dualities presented in the piece fractured in the cadenza, so did any hope of maintaining a normal or expected “form” for the piece.
After the realization that the two themes can not co- exist, the solo violin begins a leaden and despondent scale into the last movement which is joined by the trombones who play the theme of the movement. While the trombones play the new theme (which is almost the first movement song in reverse,) the solo violin is playing the first movement song, but because the new theme alternates between whole and half-steps making the key ambiguous and the solo violin is seemingly in a completely unrelated key, there is no center discernible, mirroring the now-brokenness of the piece.
As the solo violin fades away, the rest of the orchestra slowly enters, creating a bleak and desolate landscape. Emerging from an almost drug-like stupor, the numbness slowly mixes with pain as dissonances are created by the overlapping scale lament from all voices. The orchestra seems to come to a standstill at the most deafening dissonance.
Here, Britten writes the first variation almost as a recitative- the solo violin comes in speaking, murmuring and sobbing, getting more restless as the orchestra plays disquieting chant-like figurations underneath.
The second variation continues the turmoil of the first with writhing solo violin arpeggios and statements punctuated by pointed writing in the woodwinds.
The conflict in the second variation thaws into the third variation- a relaxed and undulating oboe solo, the first time since the beginning of the piece without tension.
In the fourth variation, the oboe hands the solo to the solo violin and the solo violin plays the theme playfully trying to get free from the underlying stricter rhythm of the orchestra.
In the fifth variation, the solo violin sings in octaves, inverting the theme before mimicking the orchestra’s ornamental scales. In both variations 4 and 5, echoes from the first movement start to surface- the more rigid strictly accompanimental figures are related to the militant theme as well as the heroic octave leaps in the solo violin part which are allowed to cascade and sing in earnest this time.
The sixth variation is a march, alluding to the first movement once again, with double stops and scale flourishes alternating between solo violin and orchestra.
The seventh variation is a bassoon solo over the violin playing mosquito-like music, light and similar to the ghostly piccolo part in the second movement. The seventh variation erupts into the eighth which is the grand orchestral finale.
The weighty and despondent scale we heard as the bridge to the last movement in the violin is now transformed as the orchestra plays it and allows it to resolve. This movement, once so uncertain, is now noble, sonorous, and definite. The solo violin comes in, joining in the triumph of this certainty, but there are still remnants of uncertainty and doubt. These remnants are the undoing of the closure obtained in the eighth variation, but they free the solo violin for the last.
The solo violin lapses into the last variation, surrendering to uncertainty as the only certainty and unknowing as the only knowing. The last variation consists mainly of a four-chord chant-motive pulsing in the orchestra and the solo violin, finally free from duality and the need for it, singing, searching, and improvising around that motive. In a piece where the solo violin and orchestra have been primarily at odds with each other, the last variation brings them together. The solo violin repeatedly wanders and resolves on one note of a harmony, which the orchestra then completes, helping the solo violin bloom, encouraging and affirming the violin to continue. These harmonies are strange, unexpected, and more beautiful than the things we could expect from our knowledge of how formal harmony should function. The climax of this variation is the solo violin singing a treacherously high melody on the lowest string. Singing at this range on the violin is nearly impossible and the violin seems instead to be choking, desperately supplicating. This is another instance of Britten imposing a limitation on beauty which leads to the exhaustion of the solo violin part- collapsing into the piece’s last doubting mournful moments.
The piece ends with the solo violin searching, alternating between two pitches before it trails away, leaving no closure, all of us unknowing.