Moeran's Violin Concerto

MOERAN is essentially a lyrical tone-poet. Whatever the degree of constructive skill displayed in his major works he is invariably at his best when moved to song. At such moments one forgets, as being of little importance, whether he has or has not satisfied all the postulates of musical architecture, in the sheer beauty of the lyrical expression. It is so, for instance, in the lovely concluding pages of his Symphony, in which one is content to be swayed by lyrical exaltation alone and cares little by what logical process that stage has been reached, though it will bear examination from that angle if one is that way inclined. It is in the very nature of such music to be, if not actually induced, at least profoundly affected, by the conditions under which it is created. This lends more importance than usual to the circumstances of time and place of composition. His Violin Concerto was begun on Valentia Island in 1938, the year after the completion of his Symphony, but whereas much of the latter was composed during the stormy winter months the first movement of the Concerto was written during the summer calm. The rest of the work was composed at Kenmare, South Kerry, which lies at the landward end of a long fjordlike inlet of the Atlantic. It was occasionally set aside while the composer was engaged on other work, notably the choral Suite 'Phyllida and Corydon' (1939), some songs, and the planning of instrumental works to follow, and was not completed until the end of 1941. So far as the composer is aware, no use is made of actual folk-tunes but, as he explains, he was living in the midst of a community where, apart from the radio, little else was to be heard. He was actually taking advantage of the opportunity to collect folk-songs in the district. It would therefore appear almost inevitable that the influence of folk music should assert itself, and unnatural on the composer's part to strive against it-for which, as we know from other works, he would have had little inclination. This influence is felt especially in the second movement, a Rondo, which expresses the spirit of the summer fairs of Kerry, and particularly of the famous Puck's Fair of Killorglin, which lies to the north, near Castlemaine Harbour and Dingle Bay. The retrospective third movement originated during the autumn of 1941. In its concluding pages it reflects the calm experienced in Southern Ireland at this season, before the gales begin to burst in from the Atlantic.

The first movement, Allegro moderato (4-4) in G major, opens with:

on the strings, joined at the third bar by clarinet. This short phrase, which is reserved for the orchestra and never given to the solo instrument, recurs frequently in the course of the movement, and returns to preface the epilogue which concludes the work. At the sixth bar the solo violin presents the main subject of the movement:

In modified form this same theme is also the basic subject of the last movement. At its conclusion Ex. 1 is heard a tone higher, followed by a brief lyrical phrase which, although it is to recur at the very end of the movement, has otherwise no individual thematic importance, but like some others in the course of the work, may be considered an indication of mood. This leads immediately to a new subject:

in the continuation of which, after a recall of Ex. 2 by the orchestra, occur dance-like figures foreshadowing a mood which is to assert itself before the exposition is completed. After a cadenza based on Exx. 3 and 2, and ended by the orchestra with Ex. 1, a modulation to B minor introduces the second subject:

This is followed by the anticipated change of mood in a tripping, dance-like, non-recurrent episode (12-8) , first on the wood-wind in imitation, then on the solo violin, towards the close of which Ex. 3 reasserts itself on the orchestra, to be extended in imitation in a tutti, concluding the exposition. As frequently in the works of contemporary composers, development and recapitulation are virtually one. The solo instrument muses rhapsodically, molto rubato, on Ex. 2, the orchestra interpolating Ex. 1, and continues to elaborate until the oboe interposes with a new non-recurrent lyrical phrase which the solo violin imitates an octave higher. This leads to a variant of Ex. 1 on the orchestra, followed by a cadenza and the return of the second subject, Ex. 4, on the clarinet, the solo violin taking over its second phrase. Ex. 1 in its original form and the lyrical phrase which preceded Ex. 3 bring the movement to a very quiet conclusion.

The Rondo, Vivace in D (2-4, 4-4, 3-4) is largely based on various dance-rhythms all worked out to the unit of the quaver, which remains constant in spite of many changes of time-signature, and rhythmic combinations. It opens with the strings indicating the initial rhythm in triplets, trumpet and wood-wind adding a rising figure. At the seventh bar the horns give out marcatissimo a vigorous theme in a counter-rhythm:

the strings continuing their figure. The solo violin then enters with a short bravura passage leading to:

which is quickly carried to a climax. A more flowing theme in E minor, mostly in sixths, is presented by the solo violin against string tremolos, but otherwise the buoyancy continues. Soon, against the resumption of the initial rhythmic figure by the strings, the violin gives out:

When this has been extended Ex. 6 returns in 3-4 time on tutti, followed by a new dance-figure which, when it reaches the solo violin, is completed as:

There are references to material previously heard, notably Ex. 5. Then the flowing theme in sixths is extended by tutti with a lyrical continuation on the solo violin ending in another resumption of the initial rhythm. After a short cadenza the solo violin introduces yet another dance-rhythm, Alla Valse Burlesca, which is a variant of Ex. 7, and begins a coda based mainly on the initial rhythmic figure with Exx. 6 and 5.

The last movement, Lento (3-4) in F sharp minor, concluding in D, is largely based on Ex. 2, which, however, is at first so modified that its identity is only gradually made clear as the movement proceeds. First the strings, joined at the third bar by clarinet, announce a theme over which solo violin and clarinet alternate with soaring phrases derived from Ex. 2. Then a modulation to C minor brings another theme in sixths on the solo violin, but before long the influence of Ex. 2 reasserts itself, in D minor, in a form appreciably nearer to the original, with counter-phrases on the cor anglais. All the foregoing may be considered the first subject-group of the movement. The second subject-group follows, in D major, cantabile a molto tranquillo. First the orchestra unfolds a suave theme the initial phrase of which still retains a kinship with Ex. 2 ; then the solo violin re-enters with:

After a climax an elaborate passage on the solo violin subsides pp into Ex. 1 on the muted strings, and the epilogue begins in autumnal calm. Against a murmuring background of strings, still muted, the solo violin resumes Ex. 9 and continues it with Ex. 2, which is now brought nearest to its original shape. The conclusion thus accords with the opening; but this appears to come naturally, as it were, without any deliberate restatement of the kind that is sometimes resorted to in the hope of establishing formal unity.

The first performance of the Concerto was given at a Promenade Concert, July 8, 1942, the soloist being Arthur Catterall, to whom the work is dedicated and who has edited the violin part. Owing to the success of the Symphony, and perhaps also to curiosity having been stimulated by those who had had access to the score, it had been awaited with much interest. For once such anticipations were not disappointed and it was warmly welcomed-as well it might be, for the qualities it displays are never too prevalent in music generally, and solo concertos in particular, with their inherent temptation to virtuosity for its own sake, rarely prove so congenial to them.


©2011 The Worldwide Moeran Database


So far as the composer is aware, no use is made of actual folk-tunes but, as he explains, he was living in the midst of a community where, apart from the radio, little else was to be heard...