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At-A-Glance

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Composed: 1924

Length: c. 33 minutes

Orchestration: 2 flutes (2nd = piccolo), oboe, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, trumpet, timpani, percussion (snare drum, bass drum, triangle, cymbals, xylophone), basses, and solo violin

About this Piece

The son of a cantor, Kurt Weill was raised in a highly musical family, and received intense professional musical education as a teenager. He applied to study privately with Schoenberg in Vienna, but finances prevented that, and the most significant step in his training came in 1920, when Ferruccio Busoni was appointed to teach the master- class in composition at the Academy of Art in Berlin. Weill applied, and was accepted as the youngest student in the class, beginning the following year. He formed a tight rela- tionship with Busoni over the next three years, who found him work (a ballet successfully produced in Berlin and two pieces performed by the Berlin Philharmonic) and a publisher (Universal Edition).

The Busoni connection also led to Weill’s introduction to the playwright Georg Kaiser in 1922. Kaiser was one of the most prominent theater writers of the era, and in 1924, he agreed to work with Weill on a new project. This was at first intended to be a ballet, but eventually became the one-act opera Der Protagonist, which scored a great success when it finally premiered in Dresden in 1926.

In the spring of 1924, however, while Kaiser was reworking his ballet scenario into an opera libretto, Weill turned his attention to instrumental music. “I am working on a concerto for violin and wind orchestra that I hope to finish within two or three weeks,” Weill wrote to Universal. “The work is inspired by the idea – one never carried out before – of juxtaposing a single violin with a chorus of winds.” (The accompaniment includes percussion and string basses, in addition to woodwinds and brass.)

While Weill was working on this concerto, Busoni became seriously ill, dying in July, 1924, a month after Weill finished the piece. That context may explain the dark character of the Concerto’s somber first movement, which includes references to the famous Dies irae chant from the Requiem Mass, used by many composers to evoke death.

The second movement of the Concerto is a little suite of three connected character pieces, matching solo instruments from the orchestra with the violinist. In the haunted night music of the Notturno, it is the xylophone. The Cadenza pairs the violin with trumpet, and the Serenata features the oboe and flute with the violin.

The third movement is much more extroverted than the rest of the Concerto, whirling with the character of a tarantella. The solo part is challenging throughout, and the premiere was given in Paris in 1925 by Marcel Darrieux, who had played the premiere of Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 1 two years earlier.

Weill was not so fortunate with the German premiere of the work, however, given in his hometown of Dessau. The soloist, Stefan Frankel, was quite capable and played the Concerto many times in following seasons. The local orchestra, conducted by Franz van Hosslin, was another matter.

“I was stupid to give this somewhat rough, abstract, completely dissonant piece to the Dessauers, who are the most ignorant and philistine of all,” the composer wrote after the first rehearsal to the dancer and singer Lotte Lenya, whom he was living with and would marry in 1926. “It will be unanimously rejected. One has to have already digested a portion of Schoenberg with all good will before one can understand this music. The cynical attitude of the orchestra and the impotence of this conductor make me quite nervous…”

— John Henken