Hi everyone. I thought it might be useful to put together a listening guide of sorts for Williams's second violin concerto. This struck me as appropriate given how it's going to be heard in performance again fairly soon. Also, the piece, particularly its first movement, is fairly difficult to grasp on first listen!
I've only put together a guide to the first movement (by far the most challenging), but if this is indeed helpful I'll consider doing the other three--or maybe someone else would like to. It's quite difficult to do this without a score, to put it mildly, so take everything here as provisional. I'm surely missing quite a lot of important details...
Listening Guide for John Williams, Violin Concerto 2
MOVEMENT 1: "PROLOGUE"
Overall, the most formally loose and spontaneous-seeming movement, fitting given Williams's striving for a "quasi-improvisatory" character. Not a truly non-repetitive piece, however: there are both aspects of inner-movement unity and some subtle prefiguring of material to come, particularly the concerto's principle "leitmotif" introduced in the 2nd Movement. The unpredictability of the music on a measure-to-measure level is compensated by an extremely clear division of 6 large-scale sections, summarized below.
More in-depth account:
SECTION 1 – INTRODUCTION
0:00 Quiet, slow introduction showcasing harp, supported by bed of strings. Shape of opening harp melody (D3-E3, D3-E3-C3-A3-D3) vaguely anticipates some later motivic details. First harp-based subphrase tonally centered on B♭-lydian, with contrasting Gm6(♭13) in middle. Second, string-based subphrase more dissonant, melodically disjunct. The third, once again harp-based subphrase coalesces on Dmaj6/min chord.
1:11 Introduction of soloist. Violin begins with repetition of note F4, giving bluesy quality to faint D-major tonality maintained by strings/harp. Melodic D tonic flanked by tritones A♭4 & G♯3 above and below. Progressively expands range upward, with what will become a quasi-motivic repeated note figure, here on B♭4 and E♭5. Thinner texture and new harmonies (F♯m and A-dim) and octatonic scale-fragment in violin at 1:50, followed by downwards chromatic cascades and melodic peak of E♭6. Unaccompanied violin sags glumly back downwards.
SECTION 2 – FAST AND TURBULENT
2:24 Pulsing, agitated pattern in orchestra midrange on dissonant harmony (A3+B♭3+C4+ D♭4), supported at unpredictable intervals by rising bass-figure starting on low D. Violin gathers energy with repetition of Eb4, proceeds to a flowing, unpredictable musical thought, up to the first of several big orchestral swells marked by dissonant chord and percussive punctuation that swallows up soloist.
2:46 Violin reasserts itself over motivic rising bass-figure. Pace of textural and melodic change speeds up considerably, and music becomes increasingly key-less, violin and orchestra exchanging frenzied, short-lived ideas. Particular prominence to harp, timpani, clarinet. Low-strings trace downwards arpeggio of important Gm9 chord, echoed by violin (3:09), and Em9♭5, F♯dim7.
3:16 Lighter but more dissonant texture. Spiky, progressively accelerating violin writing against unpredictable staccato wind and pizzicato bursts.
3:33 Arpeggiating eighth-note figures in low strings resume, now upwards (D2-B♭2-D3-G2-C3-E♭3, etc.), quickly losing tonal focus as another dissonant tutti swell overtakes violin, followed by brief timpani solo (3:44).
3:46 Purely orchestral climax. Dissonant pitch pyramid assembled over B pedal. Similarly vaulting bass figures under now unified upper strings in octaves on urgent melody, arching upwards in successive swells. Pulsing/sustained brass and string melody help refocus tonality onto D, and downwards chord progression (D--C--B), while dissonant, can be referred to D-center. Ends on a shrieking tutti cluster, similar to opening sonority of section but greatly intensified.
SECTION 3 – SLOW AND TRANSPARENT
4:23 Dreamy extended-tertian sonorities, starting with and centered on Gm13 (chord anticipated at 3:11, arpeggiated texture anticipated at 3:33). Violin enters with comparatively lyrical theme with pronounced downwards-moving trajectory. Tonality shifts to Dm, moving stepwise to Fm. Melodic shape heard in passing at 5:00 (F5-E5-G♯5-C5) seems to anticipate the recurring “leitmotif” of movements 2 & 4 -- you know, the one that sounds a bit like "Moonlight" from Sabrina.
5:10 Clear sense of tonality dissolves, violin becomes more agitated, emphasis on dotted rhythms, brief mini-solo of dissonant stops (5:18-5:22). Followed by dense, highly dissonant wind-ensemble writing, drawn from immediately preceding violin solo and segueing back into it.
5:39 Deep, dark minor chords (C♯m--Caug) prepare a catchy but ominous melody for solo violin built on double-stops (parallel minor 6ths), again with contour (A♭4-A♭4-G4-B4-C4) that anticipates shape of recurring leitmotif from mvts 2 & 4.
5:50 Busily spinning passagework for violin and glittering accompaniment, foreshadowing movement 2, recedes to background to allow brief flute solo (B♭4-A4-E5-G5-F♯5-F♯4) in E-minor, suggestive but as far as I can tell not motivically derived from anything else. Violin follows-through with flute melody, seamlessly moving to a…
6:20 Pre-cadenza for violin and harp, again with elements of flute melody (G6-F♯6-A5…B♭5-D♭6-C6-C5)
SECTION 4 – CADENZA
6:50 Succession of contrasting technical and expressive ideas, not a huge degree of thematic connectivity with preceding sections though fairly consistent within its own scope.
(Substructure: Downwards Em/B♭ chords—leaping octave pairs—compound melody (E6-D♯6-B5-A♯5, D♭6-C6-A5-G♯5)—trills—resigned droop—gathering energy—ascending melody over pedal—arpeggios—trills—melody reminiscent of VC1—ascending passagework maxing out at A6—descending, harsh stops, ending with repeated D4.)
SECTION 5 – BROAD AND CLIMACTIC
8:38 Rather spooky melody for violin (F♯4-D5-B♭6-F♯5) over brief suggestion of B-minor. Quickly yields to new material for orchestra, with massed brass, strings in octaves, and thick, repeating wind quasi-fanfares, all grounded over low C-pedal (C-A♭-D♭-G chord?). Classic JW concert music stuff (c.f. For Seiji, Soundings, Heartwood, etc.). Much of this seems to respond vaguely to material introduced in the Cadenza.
9:00 Almost aleatoric sounding passage for harp, solo high winds, pizz strings.
9:09 Emphasis on low winds and strings. Recollection of ascending bass figure from 3:33 (now E2-B2-D3, F♯2-B2-E3)
9:14 Climax building really starts in earnest. Wind chords seem to outline violin’s spooky melody from start of section, against aggressive massed-string section counterpoint, ending on bright, dissonant wind chord.
9:25 Violin solo reasserts self, now more actively interacting with rest of orchestra. Strong sense of rhythmic and harmonic acceleration, climax building pauses after timpani interjection (9:40).
9:48 Final, rapidly attained climax, fastest solo violin writing; impression of huge sweeping motions from whole orchestra, culminating on a huge tutti chord of characteristically JW-dissonant flavor (A-C-E- F-A♭-C♭)
SECTION 6 – AFTERMATH AND CODA
10:11 Instantly quiet, clear duet for harp and violin. Clear reminiscence of beginning of Section 3, via repeated harp arpeggio of extended triadic sonority, this time F♯m11(b♭13) instead of Gm11(nat13). Meditative violin solo above, not clearly connected to previous themes.
10:40 Quiet upwards scurrying from violin, reaching high B6, followed by abrupt, staccato motif (second phrase accompanied by four dissonant pizzicato chords from rest of string section).
11:03 Violin settles on sustained low A♭3, against resonant F2-A1 bass support on harp. Full fade-out by 11:16.