Three Pieces for Violin and Large Orchestra (1994)
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Originally composed to mark the bicentennial of the state of Tennessee, "Three Pieces for Violin and Orchestra" was premiered with the Nashville Symphony during the 1996 celebration. The pieces, "Call of the Mockingbird," "Trail of Tears," and "Fanfare for the Volunteer" reflect on broad themes relating to the history and culture of the state. The work was released in 1999 on a cd titled "Fanfare for the Volunteer."
FANFARE FOR THE VOLUNTEER
Three Pieces for Violin and Orchestra
I am pleased to present to you this recording released in 1999, marking my 25th anniversary as a solo recording artist. The creative process for this, my most recent long-form orchestral work, began in September of 1993, on a writing trip I took to one of the places that inspires me musically very much-- Santa Fe. My desire was to compose the themes of a new concerto to follow up my first, The Fiddle Concerto, completed the year before. In one of the best composing sessions I ever had, I was able to write the principal melodic themes on which the entire work was to be based, in just a couple of days.
Some months later, I received word that a panel of composers from New York's Meet The Composer organization had reviewed The Fiddle Concerto. They were commissioning only one violin concerto to be written that year, and I was asked to compose it. With this commission in place, along with an invitation from the Nashville Symphony to premiere an original piece at Tennessee's Bicentennial celebrations in 1996, I began to compose the work
based on my new themes.
The decision to title each movement came after the fact. Many conclusions I have drawn regarding the musical connection to the subject matter only come to me in an intuitive hindsight. So, in other words, Three Pieces is not "program music" and was not composed as such. For me, the music and musical inspiration always come at exactly the same time. The inspiration I gained from Tennessee's history, though, did take flight -- especially since the Bicentennial celebration was on the horizon. It occurred to me that my new themes could yield some of the timeless qualities and challenges I had come to know during the fifteen years I had lived in Tennessee.
After laying out the entire solo violin part for three or four months in 1994, I started orchestrating for full symphony orchestra during the winter of that year -- and completed the orchestral outlines for all of the first movement -- music that had a pastoral quality with minimalist motives. I discovered that the primary theme was like a bird's song with trills, which seemed to reflect natural habitat and beauty of land. That winter, I also finished the orchestration for half of the second movement -- music of tragedy and despair illustrating the forcible removal of Native Americans from their homelands. After being around the Indian culture in Santa Fe while initially writing some of the music, I felt a crushing emptiness going back home to a place whose Indian legacy was almost entirely erased by Tennessee's own son, President Andrew Jackson, in the 1840s. During 1995, I explored the heroic qualities in the third movement -- a brass fanfare for an introduction and then, developed from it my principal theme: a march turned fiddle reel for a triumphant conclusion. I wanted to celebrate the extraordinary efforts of people fighting for freedom.
Unlike a typical concerto, this music provides a virtuoso vehicle for the orchestra as well. I wanted every instrument group to be pushed as if it were a symphony with violin soloist.
There are two improvised cadenzas. The first, appearing near the conclusion of Mockingbird, is unaccompanied. The second cadenza in Fanfare is accompanied by the march of the drums and the droning of a trio of bassoons. For reference, an Irish uilleann pipe combines two unison notes in the drone with a lower octave note. This ancient instrument's technical sound production is fascinatingly similar to the configuration of orchestral instruments, which are in a series of 3s -- 2 higher and 1 lower. Fanfare's Celtic music influences, my own ancestry and that of Tennessee's early European settlers allowed me to discover yet another interesting "musical bridge."
The individual titles that make up Three Pieces have distinct characters but are related musically. The slow theme, unveiled in Call of the Mockingbird, at first seems to the listener episodic, when it is played in its entirety by the solo violin -- although fragments of the theme have been introduced by the strings in the orchestral overture. This melody is of course not the principal theme, but rather the core theme that connects all three movements. It is cyclical material that keeps finding a way back into the music, expressing commonality among the subjects -- melodically, rhythmically and philosophically. When the theme is played in its full measure once again during Fanfare, it takes possession of the rhythmic motive from the third movement's subordinate B-flat theme. In the final coda of Fanfare, the solo violin reinterprets the fiddle reel with both wild abandon and classical elegance, while an overlaying of this "anchor" theme is carried out by the French horns. In addition, the primary theme for Trail of Tears is literally spun from the (B) section of this "core" theme.
In another example of the use of cyclical material, the odd-metered death march from Tears is ushered back in as the principal theme in Fanfare, keeping with it the same rhythmic motive and time signature. However, this time it is quite a different tune. Ironically, the march of death transforms into a march for freedom and liberty, commemorating the courageous volunteer armies that joined the cause throughout Tennessee's history. This musical metamorphosis also delineates an utter hypocrisy that abounds around us in many aspects of life and certainly in our history. In a further musical exclamation of this point, a return of the principal theme from Tears appears in the finale of Fanfare. It is re-exposed in a complementary rhythmic punctuation now in the key of A Major for the work's conclusion. It is a paradoxical juxtaposition of musical themes and life themes.
FANFARE FOR THE VOLUNTEER
Three Pieces for Violin and Orchestra
CALL OF THE MOCKINGBIRD
TRAIL OF TEARS
FANFARE FOR THE VOLUNTEER
With these three extended pieces for violin and orchestra -- Call of the Mockingbird, Trail of Tears and Fanfare for the Volunteer -- Mark O'Connor takes an unusual twist on what has been a longstanding (if occasional) practice in the tradition of western classical music-making. Typically, when the classical tradition has become burdened by an overdeveloped sense of its own refinement, musicians and composers have turned to other traditions for both refreshment and inspiration. In the transition from the Renaissance to the Baroque in the late 16th century, for example, musicians sought a renewed sensibility in their work, consciously turning away from the agonizing complexities of late Renaissance music in favor of the purer, simpler sound that was to characterize music of the early Baroque. In other cases, as we find in the likes of Dvo ák and the Bohemian Nationalists of the 19th century, musicians introduced elements of indigenous styles to invigorate the anemia of generic western classical music with the force of truly local color.
Were one to define Mark O'Connor's place in this scheme, one would probably place him in something akin to the nationalist school. Weaned in traditional Anglo-American fiddle playing, O'Connor later went on to explore the rich traditions of the western and central European fiddle. It is here that we encounter the O'Connor twist: Whereas previous classical forays in to traditional musical styles were the result of composers rummaging through those traditions as if they were old trunks in the attic, O'Connor was born to it. While other composers might be considered poachers, he is, clearly, the gamekeeper.
A gifted practitioner of different indigenous forms, O'Connor, through his work as a concert composer, employs classical ideals and forms to elaborate upon his skill, knowledge and experience as a fiddler. In that sense, O'Connor calls to mind yet another protagonist in the classical tradition: the virtuoso. A creature largely of the early 19th century, the musical virtuoso became a composer because there was no existing music that took advantage of his or her particular characteristics as a performer. Following in the tracks of such notable figures from the classical pantheon as Paganini and Liszt, O'Connor proves himself to be the consummate compositional advocate for his distinctive manner of playing.
Call of the Mockingbird, Trail of Tears and Fanfare for the Volunteer, originally conceived as three movements of a single concerto, eventually took on individual lives as separate pieces as they underwent the compositional process. We can call them virtuoso compositions, but more important, they are a rich new contribution to the contemporary violin repertoire. And yet, recalling our sense of O'Connor as "nationalist" composer, these three pieces cannot have emerged from any place other than the United States.
America's sense of itself has always been a peculiar blend of place and past, from Ferde Grofé's Grand Canyon Suite and William Grant Still's The American Scene to Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring. Like Grofé, Still and Copland, O'Connor's compositions here are both informed and inspired by our landscape and our history. From the evocations of nature and landscape in Call of the Mockingbird, and the tragedy of the forced migration of the Cherokee Indians in 1838-39, (Trail of Tears), to the fierce and bittersweet pride of the southeastern United States (Fanfare for the Volunteer), O'Connor presents us with three singular portraits of America.
At the heart of O'Connor's music is the stuff of his formative experience in the folk traditions of America and Europe. We have reached a point in the concert hall where we have lost the inevitability of melody -- "tunefulness," if you will, with a strong sense of beginning, middle and end -- yet from the opening of the first piece, Call of the Mockingbird, the very inevitability of O'Connor's theme, first uttered in the flute section, is itself surprisingly shocking. As the composition progresses, during which O'Connor fragments his melody among the different parts of the orchestra, we begin to realize what a strong foundation stone this tune really is. He may occasionally stray from it in the course of a transitional episode, but O'Connor never strays far. In the course of its many voicings (both literal and figurative), the theme evokes a broad range of images, from the bird of the title to the ruggedness of the Appalachian terrain.
Ironically, the piece that captures the cultural mélange that is America is Trail of Tears. Taking its name from an episode in American history, the work incorporates aspects of Native American, Celtic and Central European traditions within the broader context of a symphonic composition. The opening drumbeat, whose rhythm might at first be confused with the well-known "war-path" theme, actually establishes the funereal atmosphere of the piece, especially when the theme, with its aura of Slavic lamentation, comes into play. Even the Irish character of a seemingly incongruous dance interlude makes sense here, for what it speaks of, in ways that words alone cannot, is the crass and appalling attitude that inspired the Europeans to force the Cherokees from their native lands in the first place.
The final piece in the collection, Fanfare for the Volunteer, offers, perhaps, the clearest blending of O'Connor's background as a traditional fiddler with his more recent work as a symphonic composer. There is a charming rawness and ease to the fiddle episode following the opening fanfare that is curiously daunting. In other hands, such playing would be teeth-grinding bravado -- the rhythms of a furious reel are, after all, every bit as taxing for the musician as for the dancer -- but O'Connor seems simply to be having fun here. And where Trail of Tears carries with it no little sense of desperation that described the forced march, the occasional hints of Irish balladry in Fanfare for the Volunteer evoke nothing so much as the keenest sense of longing.
-Jackson Braider,Producer, WGBH Radio, Boston
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