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Philip Glass's Violin Concerto No. 1 was commissioned by the American Composers Orchestra for soloist Paul Zukofsky and premiered in New York Citymarker on 5 April 1987. Following Glass's early operas, the conductor Dennis Russell Davies had been urging the composer to write more orchestral pieces, and the concerto marks Glass's first full-scale venture into non-theatrical orchestral composing.

Glass's original concept was for a five-movement work, and Zukofsky requested a slow, high finale. As the composition process developed, however, Glass decided that five movements were too many and settled for a more conventional three-movement format. According to Glass, this traditional structure was not a concession to formality but simply a result of the work finding "a voice of its own" as the first and second movements developed into longer pieces than he had originally conceived. The work was composed with Glass's father Ben in mind, despite the latter's death some sixteen years earlier: "I wrote the piece in 1987 thinking, let me write a piece that my father would have liked [...] A very smart nice man who had no education in music whatsoever, but the kind of person who fills up concert halls. [...] It's popular, it's supposed to be — it's for my Dad."

The concerto is usually around 25-30 minutes in duration when performed.


The concerto is scored for solo violin; two flutes (one doubling piccolo), two oboes, two B flat clarinets, E flat clarinet, bass clarinet, two bassoons; four horns, three trumpets, two tenor trombones, bass trombone, tuba; timpani, side drum, bass drum, wood block, triangle, cymbal; harp; and strings.


1. Metronome indication = 104-120 quarter notes per minute

2. = 108

3. = 150; Coda = 104

The first movement is characterized by a series of light, pulsing chords that are to reappear periodically throughout the movement, slightly shifted with each recurrence. The solo violin enters early in the movement playing fairly rapid arpeggios with a faintly dance-like feel that extend to encompass the full range of the instrument. There's a brief repeat of the opening chord motif, then the brass section contributes a pattern of tightly harmonized chords from which the violin draws a high melody. The piece then plunges into an intense churning pattern, with full orchestra urging the violin into complex arpeggiated twists before opening out once more into the pulsing chord motif. The movement progresses by revisiting and varying these elements, at the same time introducing an octave-leap element that prefigures the main characteristic of the second movement. The movement draws to a close with a diminuendo recapitulation of the violin's opening figures.

The second movement opens with a broken chord oscillation typical of Glass, and the low strings and woodwind begin the descending ground bass pattern that they will repeat for the duration of the movement. The rest of the orchestra is introduced over the subsequent repetitions of the ground bass, accumulating layers of harmony. Over this harmonic tissue the violin plays a series of high motifs - one lyrical, consisting mainly of repeated sustained notes, and two of arpeggiated figures. Once established, these motifs are shared equally between the soloist and the orchestra, with the soloist playing one while the orchestra plays one of the others, shifting the motif between sections of the orchestra. The focus gently shifts between the soloist and the orchestra, with neither dominating the other or competing for focus. The movement peaks at its halfway point and the the harmonic layers disappear one by one, stranding the violin between the octaves, unable to settle on the tonic.

The dance-like feel of the first movement is capitalized upon in the third movement, which after lingering on a single chord for a brief period, works up a Latin American rhythm along with untuned wooden percussion. With the introduction of the violin, the movement wheels off into a vibrant dance that repeatedly hurls itself toward a powerful cadence only to turn away from resolution at the last moment, with the violin twisting and turning amidst the drama. Out of the ebullience of the dance emerges the slow finale requested by Zukofsky: the tempo drops and a variation of the now-familiar pulsing chord motif from the first movement enters to support the violin as it spins through a soft closing theme that recapitulates the tenor of the second.


The piece quickly became one of Glass's most popular works, and appears on a number of recordings. Gidon Kremer, the first soloist to record the work, says the concerto "is a work typical of Glass, in which a certain enigmatic drive allows the performer to feel both bound to strict rhythm and free in his fantasy." The success of the concerto inspired Glass to branch out into yet more orchestral writing: his first fully formed work for orchestra alone, The Light, emerged in the same year as the violin concerto and was followed by a proliferation of concertos and symphonies over the following years.

Glass's second violin concerto, titled The American Four Seasons, is due to premiere as part of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra's 2009-10 season, on December 9 2009. The London Philharmonic Orchestra will perform its European premiere on April 17, 2010.

See also

Notes and references

  1. Maycock, Robert (2002) Glass: A Portrait, pp70-71. Sanctuary Publishing, Ltd., London. ISBN 1860743471
  2. Maycock, p107
  3. Maycock, p107
  4. Maycock, p105
  6. Concert programme for BBC Proms 2009 (Prom 37), p3
  7. Concert programme for BBC Proms 2009 (Prom 37), p5

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