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About this Piece

Relationships are also at the heart of the Violin Concerto No. 2, which Williams composed for the renowned virtuoso Anne-Sophie Mutter as a tribute to their many years of friendship and collaboration. In his note for the concerto, Williams writes:

Composing program notes has always been challenging for me. These descriptions always seem to try to answer the question “what is this music about?” And while music has many purposes and functions, I’ve always believed that in the end, the music ought to be free to be interpreted through the prism of every listener’s own personal history, prior exposures, and cultural background. One man’s sunken cathedral might be another woman’s mist at the dawning. The meaning must therefore reside, if you’ll forgive me, in the “ear of the beholder.” 

I can only think of this piece as being about Anne-Sophie Mutter, and the violin itself—an instrument that is the unsurpassed product of the luthier’s art. With so much great music already written for the instrument, much of it recently for Anne-Sophie herself, I wondered what further contribution I could possibly make. But I took my inspiration and energy directly from this great artist herself. We’d recently collaborated on an album of film music for which she recorded the theme from the film Cinderella Liberty, demonstrating a surprising and remarkable feeling for jazz. So, after a short introduction, I opened the Prologue of this concerto with a quasi-improvisation, suggesting her very evident affinity for this idiom. There is also much faster music in this movement, which while writing, I recalled her flair for an infectious rhythmic swagger that is particularly her own.

In the beginning of the next section or movement, a quiet murmur is created by a gentle motion that I think of as being circular, hence the subtitle Rounds. At one point you will hear harmonies reminiscent of Debussy, but I ask you to reflect on another Claude… in this case, Thornhill: a very early hero of mine who, it can be justly said, was the musical godfather of the Gil Evans/Miles Davis collaboration. It is also in this movement that a leitmotif or theme appears, later restated in the Epilogue. 

Dactyls, a borrowed word from the Greeks, which we use to describe a three-syllable effect in poetry, as well as the digit with its three bones, may serve to describe the next movement. It is our third movement, in a three meter, and features a short cadenza for violin, harp, and timpani… yet another triad. The violin provides an aggressive virtuosity that produces a rough, waltz-like energy that is both bawdy and impertinent.

The final movement is approached “attacca” by the violin and harp, where the two instruments reverse their relative balances in a kind of “sound dissolve.” In this way, they transport us to the Epilogue. It is in this final movement that the motif introduced in Rounds returns in the form of a duet for violin and harp, closing the piece with a gentle resolution in A major that might suggest both healing and renewal.—John Williams