concerto for violin, string orchestra, harp, and percussion (2011)
- Premiere: 13 May 2011 / Buffalo, NY / Michael Ludwig / Buffalo Philharmonic / JoAnn Falletta
- Instrumentation: hp.perc.str.
- Duration: 30'
- Commissioned by the Buffalo Philharmonic. Dedicated to JoAnn Falletta and David Ludwig.
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I. Variations: Cailín Óg a Stór -- II. Chaconne: The Praties -- III. Passacaglia: Look Away -- IV. Variations: Grace
The centerpiece [of the Buffalo Philharmonic's concert] is the world premiere of a four-movement violin concerto by Daron Hagen called "Songbook for Violin, Strings, Harp and Percussion." Touchingly, it is based on two Irish and two American folk songs that Hagen's wife sings nightly to their young son at bedtime.
Complicated to describe but easy to hear, each movement is based on variations of one sort or another, opening with a song of tragedy about the 1798 Irish uprising. The violin enters with a heartwarming, slow melancholy theme, far more beautiful than the circumstances would imply, developed and expanded in intensity and seriousness over warm string support, then returning to its original simplicity, quite lovely overall.
A scherzo of sorts finds the violin skittering over harp and snare drum in an animated theme called "The Praties," about the great potato famine. Driven by a winning rhythmic pulse, the music unexpectedly and satisfyingly takes a quick turn up and out. The effective slow movement based on "Over Yandro" opens with contemplative strings over which the violin limns an up-reaching, supplicating theme radiating both tenderness and angst that reaches a quiet resolution.
Even more complex in structure, the Finale opens with an extended violin solo, followed by an allegro of great agitation during which the tune of the ubiquitous "Amazing Grace" falls gradually into place, piece by piece. It continues with violin variations over restless orchestral and percussion support, then virtually without warning just stops. Wholly tonal with only mild dissonance, it's music that falls pleasantly on the ear....
— Herman Trotter, Buffalo News, 14 May 2011
Daron Hagen’s “Songbook” for solo violin, strings, harp and percussion featured former concertmaster Michael Ludwig as well as BPO harpist Suzanne Thomas, BPO percussionists Mark Hodges and Dinesh Joseph, and the BPO strings. It can be dark, particularly when it quotes “The Croppy Boy,” a tragic Irish folk song. But the Irish and Appalachian folk melodies and hymns the work includes offer warmth. Hagen explained to The News that he was inspired by the songs he heard his wife singing to their baby son.
— Mary Kunz Goldman, Buffalo News, 21 February 2015
The idea of composing a piece for Michael Ludwig and JoAnn Falletta came up over dinner after a concert performance by the Buffalo Philharmonic of my opera Shining Brow on the night of my birthday in 2006. Michael's beautiful, singing tone during the many prominent violin solos in the opera's score moved me to suggest that we make a violin concerto together.
For inspiration, I turned to daily life. Each evening, as part of his bedtime ritual, my wife sings our son folk songs and spirituals. A professional composer and singer, she embroiders the tunes and develops them. Through the door, or over the baby monitor, as I tidy up the home we share, I listen in. This to me is an important manifestation of the musical fabric of our domesticity. I chose four of those melodies to serve as the musical basis of the concerto.
I began with Cailín Óg a Stór, a traditional 16th century Irish air that figures prominently in James Joyce's writings and is (as The Croppy Boy) one of the very saddest songs about the Irish rising of 1798. The second tune I explored was The Praties, another Irish ballad -- this one about the Potato Famine of 1740-41 that caused the exodus of so many Irish families. The third was Look Away, Over Yandro, one of the best known and loved traditional Appalachian folk songs. The last was Amazing Grace, a beloved tune that may have originated as a work song sung by 18th century American slaves.
Despite the fact that extra-musical associations are inevitable (I wasn't immune) when one delves into the collective musical memory of folk song for inspiration, Songbook is not a programmatic piece.
On a purely musical level, the first movement consists of nine variations on Croppy Boy. The second is a chaconne based on the harmonies that underpin The Praties. The third is a passacaglia based on the tune of Over Yandro. The finale bookends the work by picking up with a tenth variation on Croppy Boy before overlaying Amazing Grace and the other tunes (the effect is sort of like listening to a composer juggle) atop it one after the other for a series of five more variations, ending with one marked "quasi un mbira." (A mbira is an African thumb piano.)
Appropriately enough, the concerto received its premiere by Michael and JoAnn with the Buffalo Philharmonic May 13, 14, and 15th in celebration of the orchestra's 75th Anniversary -- and a few days before the projected birth of my second son.